Even in this company, though, Best Night (BBC2) was a pretty impressive demonstration of piety, clearing three hours of the schedules for a reverent account of "the fifth Beatle". Oddly enough, as soon became clear in The Best Thing (presented by Michael Parkinson), George had reversed the hagiographic tradition for young male saints: first came the holy innocence and the miracles, next came the life of godless dissipation. "There wasn't anything he couldn't do," said the Apostle Michael, and, on the pitch at least, it looked like that was true. Through the murk of degraded black-and-white film you could just about see that one of the blobs was moving with a dancing fluency, faithfully accompanied by a smaller white blob which could have been a football or an excitable terrier. In colour you didn't have to take his footwork quite so much on faith - even to an agnostic it was clear that here was something special, almost a kind of physical wit as he teased the opposing players until they bumped into each other. There was even a nun on hand to testify to his charitable deeds, but the finest tribute came from his one-time agent: "You could put George's name on stair-rods," he said, recalling the glory days, "and sell them to bungalows."
I enjoyed what I saw of Best Night, but it was still a relief to turn to a very different genius on the other side. The South Bank Show (ITV) has not been on the best of form lately, edged more and more into the chillier tracts of the schedules and seeming a little exhausted in its manner. Some weeks it prompts uncomfortable speculations about the natural lifespan of programme strands. So it's nice to report that "Vermeer: Light, Love and Silence" was one of the more intriguing films it has delivered recently.
It was by no means a perfect programme - indeed, it was decidedly incoherent at times, as if Michael Gill, its director, had come up with a host of competing ways to tackle the subject and decided to let them fight it out on screen. Jonathan Miller turned up first as a contributor, then reappeared to interview Svetlana Alpers, as if making a late bid for presentership. For a little while it became an overheard conversation, before reverting to other conventions. Some experts sounded as if they were reading slightly stiffly from prepared scripts, while others were called on for condensed lectures. The result was a butterfly dance to the intellectual continuity of the thing - first a bit of history, then some tableaux vivantes (almost always a bad idea in documentaries about artists), then an explanation of perspective, then a passage of rapturous inspection, then the good Doctor getting metaphysical.
What came through this skittish collage of facts and speculation was a consistent image - the mysterious power of Vermeer's empty spaces. "He leaves so much to the imagination that he will always speak to us," said one admirer, touching on the paradox of the work, its voluble taciturnity. Jonathan Miller put it differently, noting how Vermeer was one of the first painters to record "the quiet flow of undirected thought". The most beautiful sequence was a long gaze at the portrait in which a girl turns her head to stare directly out of the canvas, a sequence in which the narration didn't just fill a gap on the soundtrack but made you look harder to verify its arguments.Reuse content