The Art Show

Saturday, October 26, 2002 by

Poetry is one of the most difficult things to take seriously on TV. Whatever gimmicks or contexts or celebrities are wheeled out for effect, the recital of verse just doesn’t lend itself at all well to the small screen. The impact of the words get diminished, the performance cannot help but appear unnatural, and the person doing the reading always looks either desperately uncomfortable, shamelessly self-obsessed, or both. As such you felt that this week’s edition of The Art Show was almost fighting a losing battle from the start.

The Art Show is a long lost cousin of Without Walls, but without the spark and irreverence. For a start, where the latter had a fantastic on-screen identity based around a cheeky scampering armadillo and a manic medley of doo-wop voices, The Art Show announces its presence through a grim procession of grey slides including “The beginning of – The Art Show” “Where do you start? – The Art Show” “Without fancy words – The Art Show” and, worst of all, “Ends in 30 minutes – The Art Show“. This kind of stylised impersonal knowingness has precisely the opposite effect of what any decent title sequence should do. In other words, it makes you not want to watch any further.

Secondly, for no reason whatsoever this particular edition of The Art Show was shown entirely in black and white. A straightforward enough conceit, perhaps, but the less you tried to forget about it, the more it called attention to itself. Why was there no colour? To make us take the content more seriously? To set up an ironic contrast with the contemporary nature of the poems? Unfortunately it just ended up compounding the programme’s rather pompous attitude, which in turn, coupled with jump cuts and blurred images and backwards tape, only reinforced the sense of it all being just an exercise in arty film-making rather than a chance to allow viewers to enjoy a bit of poetry.

The subject of the film was Rudyard Kipling’s If, which the voiceover reminded us “remains today the nation’s most popular poem.” Four contemporary poets had been challenged to update the work “for the 21st century”, while speaking about what significance they thought the original work continues to have on society. This was depressingly reminiscent of many a dull classroom creative writing exercise, the kind of busywork doled out to fill up a rainy afternoon (“Imagine yourself to be Neville Chamberlain. How would you announce you had declared war on Germany?”) As such, for it to really work you felt the featured poets merited a forum where their views, controversial or otherwise, could make maximum impact. If they had something interesting to say, which the programme was by definition claiming they had, then their messages should reach us in as arresting and immediate a manner possible.

Frustratingly, on this occasion it was more often than not that the pictures got in the way of the words. Sometimes the off-kilter and self-consciously experimental visuals locked with the text to effectively emphasise a point or an idea. This was true of the segment featuring the young poet Owen Sheers, who based his version of If around the culture and people of the declining steelworks of South Wales. Images of vast, vacant factories and shadowy hillsides threw up all sorts of relationships with his words, and also gave the viewer some space to find their own meaning within his poem.

In contrast, when another of the writers, Sophie Wooley, offered up a version of If based around a bus journey through the centre London, she was simply shown standing against a brick wall while the camera poked and juddered around her. This didn’t seem to work at all. The visuals were almost too busy, and the choice of frames too cluttered to let the text stand for itself. The images took precedence over the words, rather than vice versa; ultimately you ended up virtually ignoring the poem and wondering instead where the next shot would be coming from.

How to transfer the written word onto screen is undoubtedly a persistent dilemma, but this edition of The Art Show didn’t nudge the debate one way or the other. As far as its own specific concerns and the legacy of Rudyard Kipling, even after each of the respective poems had been delivered it didn’t feel like much had been proved. Someone or something was needed to pull everything together and sum up a key theme or thought that had been learned. Instead a few random suggestions over how Kipling’s views on imperialism bear closer examination in the light of today’s global community were mixed in with a bit of grandstanding about prejudices towards modern poetry, and that was it.

Series producer of The Art Show is Jacques Peretti – erstwhile Guardian columnist and reviewer, who has previously demonstrated a disinterest in checking his telly facts and a tendency to relate everything back to himself. Peretti’s new parish might have potential were it not for its lack of focus, confusion of agendas and an acute absence of fun. C4 needs a regular arts series but it’s really got to be more vibrant and exclusive and not so po-faced to pull this viewer in week after week.

Of course, the way it’s kicked rather aimlessly around Channel 4′s weekend schedules doesn’t help, inviting viewers to stumble across The Art Show more by accident than design. The days may be gone when the channel pointedly ran high-profile flagship documentary strands at 9pm every weeknight – Cutting Edge, Dispatches, Secret History and so on – but appearing unable or unwilling to anchor its one solitary arts programme in a stable slot for more than two weeks running seems pretty lamentable. The lingering impression is one of perilous short-termism, of almost planning schedules on the hoof. It’s also one that rather wholeheartedly undermines the whole point of the programme’s declared existence. After all, it’s difficult to see how you can keep making “the arts” more accessible and engaging if you can’t even keep time.


Comments are closed.