TELEVISION / Getting rowdy with Gaudi: Giles Smith hears the history of Barcelona in 50 minutes on tour with Robert Hughes in BBC 1's Omnibus special

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The Independent Culture
Big man, Robert Hughes. And last night, in an Omnibus special (BBC 1), he was big in Barcelona. There he was in the town hall, squeezing out of a lift with all the other workers down around his knees. And there he was again, occupying more than his fair share of the back of a cab. These particular scenes were filmed through the windscreen, apparently by someone lying on the bonnet. It was nice to get a different angle on that old visitor-in-taxi routine, although this may have been a practical decision rather than a creative one, responding to the fact that, with Hughes inside the vehicle, there wasn't enough room for a camera.

Once out of the taxi, Hughes stalked the city, giving us the cultural low-down. Some passages were straight out of his book on the subject. Barcelona may be the Olympic city this year, but for Hughes the interesting thing about the place is that it's interesting. He dressed smart to the bottom of his jacket, but then blew it with the jeans and the plimsols. His script, too, brought together the formal and the hard-wearing, and sounded a lot better than the clothes looked. Take his line on Catalan holiday ceremonies, delivered in parched Australian: 'They skip over the religious bit pretty quickly and get back into a domain of bawdiness, humour and folklore populated by fabulous creatures from the past.' Or the moment when he said, 'this rational, ambitious building lifts your heart.' Sometimes he even managed to sound like he should be writing pop songs ('. . . with the whores and the junkies and the general honky-tonk . . . ').

When you listen to Hughes, the high and the low rub along in a continuum. He looks like the kind of person you might see backed up against the rugby club bar, yet there he is in a church, talking about its 'virile, boney structure' and 'the solemn grove of octagonal columns around the apse'. He talked about Gaudi's 'vertical stone tunnels, carrying their darkness into the sky' and then he walked into some disastrous new bar where design took precedence not only over small matters like comfort and convenience, but even, in a particularly acute twist, over aesthetic pleasure. Most of the furniture looked like it had endured an explosion and survived as chipped remnants of its former self. In the loo, ultra violet lights 'turned your pee a horrible green'. Hughes decided to slap it around with a few plosives: 'Pee Wee's playhouse for Catalan yuppies'.

There was one baffling moment towards the end, when Hughes mingled with the transsexual prostitutes on a dirt strip behind the university - a prop forward among the hookers. Here, he claimed, as men flashed their drug-induced breasts at passing cars, was something essentially Catalan - 'heroic efforts' to remake things using existing materials. 'They are on the cutting edge, so to speak, of Catalan design. It's almost religious, but then design is a sort of religion - mortification of the urban flesh.' People who wish to be imposing often say that something is 'a sort of religion', but the simile too easily assumes that everyone knows what a religion is like. And whatever religion, growing female body-parts and making bad cafes might have in common, it was never going to spring readily to mind. For once you sensed the script doing a deal with television's demands for something snappy and spuriously grand-sounding. But if this was far-fetched, the rest was vivid and to hand. Perhaps the BBC will now re-show The Shock of the New.

(Photograph omitted)