TELEVISION / Wendy becomes a habit

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The Independent Culture
SISTER Wendy's Odyssey (BBC 2) opened with a scene of embowered retreat, a caravan amongst a tangle of trees from which, it is suggested, our presenter has been coaxed to stand dazzled in the light of paintings seen for the first time. As Sister Wendy has appeared on a chat show, served on at least one artistic jury and conducted a reasonable career as a freelance writer, you might be forgiven for taking all this with a pinch of salt. If Sister Wendy is a recluse then Jeremy Beadle is a shy boy and Rod Stewart finds it difficult talking to girls.

However hard you dig your heels in, though, the cynicism starts to leak away when she opens her mouth. The secret of her undoubted success as a presenter is not so much that she has wonderful new insights (though she does occasionally) but that she provides a service for those who find themselves uncertain or inert in front of works of art. She offers subtitles for the hard of feeling. So effusive is her joy in front of paintings, so insistently does she make the case that rapture rather than rationality is the proper response to great works that you are bound, after a while, to be warmed by the glow. Entering a gallery is 'one of the most exciting experiences human life has to offer,' she asserted early on. You'd have to be a nun to believe that, you thought, but ten minutes later she'd made a fair case for the claim.

Her spirituality can sometimes seem a little indiscriminate, a little clerical - in the way that vicars can turn almost any triviality into a moral emblem. Sister Wendy, you feel after a short exposure to her afflatus, could find spiritual significance in a paving slab. But she has sharp eyes as well as a sensitive soul. Talking about Fra Filippo Lippi's Joachim and Anna Meeting at the Golden Gate she poured the painter's biography over this small Biblical painting, to sweeten its apparent austerity. She alerted you too, to the way the painting reads from left to right as a movement from barren greyness into warm fecundity. In front of Piero di Cosimo's Forest Fire she simply surrendered; 'I can't do more than point to it,' she said after a slightly breathless mea culpa about her lack of words. As criticism this is abject but as proselytising for art it may work miracles.

Short Stories (C 4) continued a very strong run with a subject that promised to come gift-wrapped for a director - the world of Pony Club meets. Veronica Reinhardt's film proved a little low key though, perhaps because she seemed uncertain whether this was social comedy or social anthropology. The Pony Club is changing, taking in a lot more of what one formidable old instructress called 'run-of-the-mill' children; she presumably had in mind girls like Zoe and Joanne Nesbitt, whose parents devote all of their time and most of their (uninherited) money to competitions. In the event, Joanne splendidly put her right by taking the cup.