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.