Waldemar Januszczak and the curse of the Sistine Chapel

Wal­damar Januszczak.

The finest writ­ers on art, at least in the Eng­lish lan­guage, are Peter Schjel­dahl and Walde­mar Januszczak. And they strad­dle the Atlantic like two colos­sal light hous­es, the for­mer from some­where in Williams­burg where he files his celes­tial copy for the New York­er, the lat­ter from his muse in Chelsea where he writes a week­ly col­umn for the Cul­ture sec­tion of the Sun­day Times.

If you haven’t seen this already, treat yourself.

Januszczak has gone on to forge an almost flaw­less career as a doc­u­men­tary film and series mak­er where he focus­es prin­ci­pal­ly on late 19th cen­tu­ry Paris. But he’s equal­ly adept and com­fort­able on the Renais­sance and every­thing in between. All of those move­ments that led from there to the birth of Mod­ernism as it burst forth from Paris at the turn of the 20th century.

He is both deeply knowl­edge­able and con­sis­tent­ly illu­mi­nat­ing on every­thing from Picas­so – on whom he teamed up with the peer­less john Richard­son — Gau­guin, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec, to the Baroque, sculp­ture and the birth of Impres­sion­ism, reviewed by me ear­li­er here. But that ‘flaw­less’ is stained by that ‘almost’ cour­tesy of an albeit under­stand­able fix­a­tion with the Sis­tine Chapel.

In 2011, he made his one and only dud, The Michelan­ge­lo Code: Secrets of the Sis­tine Chapel, which was recent­ly screened again on the excel­lent Sky Arts. All of its parts are as engag­ing and enlight­en­ing as you’d have hoped and expect­ed. All of that research into the Medici popes, the Fran­cis­cans and his metic­u­lous read­ing of the bible and the scrip­tures was well worth the con­sid­er­able effort it obvi­ous­ly cost him.

But none of it adds up to any­thing. There’s no there, there. He plain­ly sees some sort of con­nec­tion between the Branch David­i­ans and that mad­ness at Waco, Texas, and the chapel’s ceil­ing. But if any­one can tell me after watch­ing it what that con­nec­tion is, I’ll send you on a bar of choco­late and a can of fizzy pop.

He’s won­der­ful com­pa­ny and a glo­ri­ous guide, and I am more than hap­py to have sat through the thing for the sec­ond time. But for the life of me, I’ve still no idea what any of it was actu­al­ly about.

If you’re unfa­mil­iar with Januszczak, then you should search out some of his arti­cles, any of them. His crit­i­cism is absolute­ly bul­let proof. And if you can, watch any of his doc­u­men­taries. But you should prob­a­bly treat The Michelan­ge­lo Code as some­thing of a bonus track, a delet­ed scene. Strict­ly for afi­ciona­dos only.

You can see the tail­er for the Michelan­ge­lo Code here.

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Hew Strachan’s “The 1st World War” on BBC4 is Unmissable.

Hew Strachan's 1st. World War on BBC4.

Hew Stra­chan’s 1st. World War on BBC4.

The 1st. World War is a ten part series that was first broad­cast on Chan­nel 4 in 2003 and in cur­rent­ly being reshown on BBC4. Pro­duced and nar­rat­ed by Jonathan Lewis and based on Hew Stra­chan’s uni­ver­sal­ly admired 2001 book, this is quite sim­ply the defin­i­tive series on the war.

On the one hand, and unlike so many con­tem­po­rary pro­grammes, it’s based entire­ly around one man’s views on the top­ic. So instead of bol­ster­ing its polemic with the views of var­i­ous oth­er aca­d­e­mics, or worse, feign­ing impar­tial­i­ty by pre­sent­ing a so say bal­anced view, what you have instead is a good old fash­ioned, God’s eye view that fans of John Gri­er­son and the BBC of old will be famil­iar with.

The balance of power in Europe in 1914.

The bal­ance of pow­er in Europe in 1914.

And on the oth­er, it tells its clear and won­der­ful­ly con­cise nar­ra­tive through a com­bi­na­tion of the let­ters that the indi­vid­ual sol­diers sent back home to Eng­land, Ger­many, Rus­sia, Japan and Africa, with rare archive footage, and easy to fol­low graph­ics that walk us through the peaks and troughs of the var­i­ous campaigns.

So episode 3 for instance (last week’s episode) explained how what had begun as a region­al pow­er strug­gle quick­ly esca­lat­ed into a glob­al war.

Ger­many had encour­aged its ally Aus­tria to take revenge on Ser­bia for the assas­si­na­tion of its Arch­duke Franz Fer­di­nand in June of 1914. Ser­bia was allied with Rus­sia, and Rus­sia had signed a treaty with the French. When then the Ger­mans attacked France via Bel­gium, they gave Britain the excuse it need­ed to weigh in, as the British were the guar­an­tors on Bel­gian neutrality.

The Battle of the Falklands in December 1914 where the British finally caught up with the brilliant Maxamilian von Spee.

The Bat­tle of the Falk­lands in Decem­ber 1914 where the British final­ly caught up with the bril­liant Max­a­m­il­ian von Spee.

Thus Britain, France and Rus­sia were drawn up against Ger­many and the Aus­tro Hun­gar­i­an Empire, and inevitably the Ottoman Empire to the East was soon involved. So  Ger­many decid­ed to dis­tract the British, French and Rus­sians by threat­en­ing their inter­ests in the far flung reach­es of the globe in the hope of divert­ing their resources from the West­ern front. And a suc­ces­sion of cam­paigns were con­duct­ed by rogue Ger­man mil­i­tary mav­er­icks in Chi­na, the Amer­i­c­as and on the coasts of Africa. In this way, a Euro­pean con­flict became a gen­uine­ly glob­al one.

Impres­sive­ly, the pro­gramme man­aged to main­tain a del­i­cate bal­ance between telling a grip­ping sto­ry of the strug­gle for pow­er between com­pet­ing glob­al empires, and the effect that that strug­gle had on the lives of ordi­nary Africans and Asians who were thought­less­ly used as their fodder.

Maxamilian con Spee and his two sons eventually went down with their crew at the Battle of the Falklands.

Von Spee and his two sons even­tu­al­ly went down with their crew at the Bat­tle of the Falklands.

This obvi­ous­ly is entire­ly depen­dent on the reli­a­bil­i­ty of your guide. Hap­pi­ly, Stra­chan is as author­i­ta­tive a pair of eyes as you could wish for. The book which the series is based on was orig­i­nal­ly com­mis­sioned by the Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty Press and is the first part of what is planned as a tril­o­gy. You can read Robert McCrum’s review of it in the Observ­er here, which was just one of a slew of stel­lar reviews it got.

The book on which the series is based.

The book on which the series is based.

Refresh­ing­ly, and in stark con­trast to either Sir Max Hast­ings or Niall Fer­gu­son, both of whom had pro­grammes on the BBC last week, and both of whom wear their bias­es as a badge of pride, what­ev­er Strachan’s per­son­al prej­u­dices are on the War, he keeps them firm­ly in check. And what he pro­duces instead is the defin­i­tive overview of the events that shaped the 20th century.

The 1st World War is a com­bi­na­tion of all the very best that the medi­um of tele­vi­sion is capa­ble of. And don’t wor­ry if you’ve missed the first few episodes. Each indi­vid­ual pro­gramme is themed and is designed to stand alone. You can catch up with it on Tues­days on BBC4.

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Channel 4’s “Top Boy” Makes Triumphant Return.

Series 2 of Top Boy.

Series 2 of Top Boy.

When Chan­nel 4 aired the first series of Top Boy over four suc­ces­sive nights in 2011 it felt like some­thing of an aber­ra­tion. Here was a bril­liant­ly illu­mi­nat­ing win­dow on a cor­ner of inner city life, dra­ma­tiz­ing a part of Britain that con­ven­tion­al tele­vi­sion tra­di­tion­al­ly ignores. Com­pelling, believ­able, impres­sive­ly visu­al and all too real, series 1 was reviewed by me ear­li­er here.

Hard­ly the sort of pro­gramme in oth­er words that one nor­mal­ly asso­ciates with a sta­tion like Chan­nel 4.

But since then, pro­grammes like South­cliffe, the dystopi­an Utopia, the bril­liant French import The Returned (which I reviewed ear­li­er here) and now this, series 2 of Top Boy sug­gest that Chan­nel 4 might final­ly be get­ting some of its mojo back.

The Returned.

The Returned.

It’s point­less try­ing to talk about Top Boy with­out com­par­ing it to The Wire. That is man­ages to stand up to and mer­it that com­par­i­son is remark­able. Even if, for the moment, it doesn’t quite scale those kind of heights. But then again, nei­ther has it so far been giv­en scope to, with just the four episodes per series to play with.

As with all the best dra­ma on tele­vi­sion, it’s all down to the writ­ing. Ronan Ben­nett’s scripts are bril­liant­ly struc­tured and won­der­ful­ly nuanced. They’re giv­en life by a col­lec­tion of remark­able per­for­mances from a mix­ture of vet­er­ans and new com­ers. And once again the direc­tion is notable for its sense of style and grandeur as much for its grit­ty real­ism. And the whole thing is giv­en a won­der­ful sheen thanks to Bri­an Eno’s qui­et­ly men­ac­ing score.

Series two has just begun on Chan­nel 4. Watch it. This is the best and the most impor­tant dra­ma pro­duced for tele­vi­sion on these islands this decade.

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French Television Comes of Age with Beguiling “The Returned”.

The Returned.

The Returned.

One of the things that the French crit­ic Roland Barthes was refer­ring to in his Mytholo­gies (1957) was the assump­tion that going to the­atre was bet­ter for you than going to the cin­e­ma. And that best of all was read­ing a book. The myth being, that some things are nec­es­sar­i­ly bet­ter for you than others.

It was in France that Le Cahiers du Ciné­ma was launched as a reac­tion to that. And from there, the French New Wave of Truf­faut, Godard, Rohmer, Demy and Chabrol emerged.

Hotel Costes.

Hotel Costes.

Equal­ly, they refused to snig­ger at pop music.  From Serge Gains­bourg and Fran­coise Hardy to Daft Punk and Stéphane Pom­pougnac – and if you’ve yet to dis­cov­er the laid­back seduc­tive­ly louche lounge world of Hôtel Costes, then lucky you. It awaits. You can begin here with this video from Hôtel Costes 15.

But for what­ev­er rea­son, the French have always refused to look at tele­vi­sion oth­er than from a lofty, dis­dain­ful height. Iron­i­cal­ly, they’ve always viewed it in much the same way that the rest of the world used to regard cin­e­ma. So The Returned is a wel­come cor­rec­tive to an unchar­ac­ter­is­tic prejudice.

The series revolves around a school bus that has crashed over a cliff and the sto­ries that emerge as the dead chil­dren re-sur­face as if noth­ing had hap­pened. The rea­son that it all works so well is that every­thing is played absolute­ly straight.

It’s a mil­lion miles away from any of the hor­ror genre gore and blood fests that have slipped into vogue of late. What it’s clos­est to is prob­a­bly Break­ing Bad’s first two and best series’. But with­out any of the thriller ele­ments that came alas to dom­i­nate the latter’s lat­er episodes.

Twin Peaks, Fire, Walk With Me.

Twin Peaks, Fire, Walk With Me.

Like Break­ing Bad, it asks what would you do if your dead daugh­ter sud­den­ly turned up four years after her death? Real­ly. How would you react?

The oth­er obvi­ous touch­stone, as is invari­ably ref­er­enced, is Twin Peaks. Which isn’t ter­ri­bly fair, as unsur­pris­ing­ly it is in no way as visu­al­ly or as son­i­cal­ly dar­ing. But then again, what is?

That caveat aside, there is a sim­i­lar­ly eerie air to events here. And it real­ly is an impres­sive­ly cin­e­mat­ic piece of work.

The Returned.

The Returned.

That it’s not quite suf­fi­cient­ly Lynchi­an is hard­ly the most damn­ing thing you could hurl at a direc­tor. It’s com­fort­ably the best thing you’ll see on tele­vi­sion this year.

The Returned began on Chan­nel 4 last week­end. But don’t wor­ry if you missed the first episode. It won’t make you any the less wis­er about what’s going on. And you will regret it if you don’t start tun­ing in.

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Brave New World with Stephen Hawking” — Channel 4

It’s always a lit­tle con­flict­ing when­ev­er you see the name Stephen Hawk­ing in a pro­gramme title. On the one hand, it’s won­der­ful to see a man who clear­ly presents some­thing of a chal­lenge to the medi­um of tele­vi­sion being afford­ed the sort of atten­tion he unques­tion­ably deserves.

On the oth­er, it’s hard to sup­press the sense that the chan­nel involved is just lazi­ly cash­ing in on his renown. Hap­pi­ly, both of the most recent exam­ples were made by peo­ple as inter­est­ed in our under­stand­ing of the world as he is.

Into The Uni­verse with Stephen Hawk­ing (or Stephen Hawk­ing’s Uni­verse as it was called in Britain) was shown on the Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel and, despite its occa­sion­al brash­ness, was a gen­uine attempt at intel­li­gent­ly sculpt­ing a pro­gramme around his core inter­ests; the nature of the uni­verse, and our place in it. And now, though very dif­fer­ent in its scope, Chan­nel 4’s Brave New World with Stephen Hawk­ing looks at the many very prac­ti­cal dis­cov­er­ies that emerge from the explo­rations con­duct­ed by peo­ple like him.

Essen­tial­ly, it’s an up-mar­ket (and alas con­densed) ver­sion of Tomor­row’s World, the BBC series that used to gaze into the future with Blue Peter awe and child-like won­der. Sen­si­bly, they’ve enlist­ed the ser­vices of five or six of our most respect­ed pop­u­lar sci­en­tists, includ­ing David Atten­bor­ough, Robert Win­ston, Jim Al-Khalili, and Richard Dawkins.

Sci­en­tists who are pop­u­lar not because they in any way play down the com­plex­i­ties of their respec­tive fields, but because they man­age to com­mu­ni­cate the nature of those com­plex­i­ties so acces­si­bly. And the most icon­ic of all our pop­u­lar sci­en­tists is Hawk­ing (though quite how acces­si­ble A Brief His­to­ry Of Time actu­al­ly is, is very much open to debate).

There are just five episodes, each cov­er­ing four or five dif­fer­ent items and each seg­ment is pre­sent­ed by the expert appro­pri­ate to the giv­en field. Con­cep­tu­al­ly, they begin with an appar­ent­ly arcane cor­ner of the sci­en­tif­ic land­scape, before illus­trat­ing how incred­i­bly use­ful that par­tic­u­lar area of enquiry proved to be, by show­ing us one of the whol­ly prac­ti­cal inven­tions that grew out of it. As with all the best tele­vi­sion, the exam­ples they chose all need­ed to be seen to be ful­ly appre­ci­at­ed, and often indeed to be believed.

The dri­ver­less car, for instance, that Google has devel­oped is all very well. But you real­ly need to wit­ness the extra­or­di­nary way that it han­dles cor­ners, at speed, to appre­ci­ate just how stag­ger­ing­ly fast the pro­cess­ing pow­er in the com­put­ers that it relies on are. Sim­i­lar­ly, you need to see what it means to para­plegics to be able to step into what amounts to a bion­ic suit that enables them to walk, to appre­ci­ate what this could mean to them.

And you need to watch physi­cist Kathy Sykes, as she trav­els down for more than two kilo­me­tres into the bow­els of the Earth to vis­it the SNO lab­o­ra­to­ry in Ontario Cana­da, where they study the pre­cise nature of Neu­tri­nos, to appre­ci­ate what was involved in con­struct­ing a lab­o­ra­to­ry there. Our increased under­stand­ing of the nuclear fusion that pow­ers our Sun has had, and will con­tin­ue to have innu­mer­able prac­ti­cal uses.

The pro­gramme acts as a won­der­ful cel­e­bra­tion of all the prac­ti­cal things that com­plex areas of sci­ence can pro­duce. And cru­cial­ly, it treats the view­er as an intel­li­gent equal. Hope­ful­ly, Chan­nel 4 will have the good sense to com­mis­sion a sec­ond series. And when they do, they’ll allow the pro­gramme mak­ers apply the same rigour that they did to the first series.