Discovering a taste for life in the fast lane

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The Independent Culture
ENVY should play no part in the critical process I know, but I have to confess that Carnography (C4), Muriel Gray's new series on car culture, has given me a few problems. Last week she laid down some rubber calligraphy on a Californian airstrip, using a Dodge Viper as a paintbrush - this week she tooled along the Corniche in the new 'Posh 911' (as her accent has it). Does she really expect to have this much fun and then get a good review as well?

Unfortunately (chiz, chiz) there's no getting round the fact that the series itself is pretty good, an unusual blend of a fascination with cars and a battery acid contempt for most of their drivers. God alone knows what it is doing as part of Channel 4's arts strand but I'm not inclined to send it back to the kitchen just because it doesn't match the menu.

The combination of wit and wheelbase lengths isn't exactly new - Jeremy Clarkson's joky reports for Top Gear have had such an influence on the programme that the other presenters have all begun to talk like him. But you can't imagine Top Gear standing quite this far back from the objects of its passion. Muriel Gray can do all that stuff about torque and shift pattern and mid-range power but she's just as interested in the automobile as cultural object. Who could ask for more, a symptom that goes from 0 to 60 in seven seconds.

There are dangers here. Last week's report on the Defender, an armoured limousine on sale to nervous Los Angelenos, included an academic (from the Institute of Advanced Banality) who grindingly pointed out that for some people cars are 'almost an extension of themselves'. But Muriel herself is a lot more fun, even when she takes her conscience for a spin.

In the first of the series a report about the motoring organisations' current scare advertising (women in danger, lone breakdowns etc) was alert to the hidden agenda without ever sounding drearily puritanical. This week a piece from California about a novel sales technique for Saturn cars (one price, everything included, no haggling and the salesman keeps pictures of your kids in his wallet) was nicely spliced with a quick rundown on more conventional selling techniques. If you are offered very hot coffee in a car showroom, beware - it's a way of keeping you pinned down while the predator spins his web.

Omnibus's film 'The Performers - Goya' (BBC 1) was variously described as 'revised' and 'updated' in pre-publicity. It would be interesting to know exactly how, because it was impossible to tell from what you saw whether it had been touched at all since its first broadcast in 1972. Perhaps the phrases betrayed an uneasy conscience about serving up 22-year-old film to coincide with the opening of a new Goya exhibition in London, a decision which offers obvious economies of time and money in the short term but will not do much for the reputation of your series if it happens too often.

And perhaps, too, we are talking 'vintage' rather than 'past its sell-by date'. In fact Leslie Megahey's film had aged well, apart from some of that frantic rostrum camerawork which marks the films of the time (if the painting shows a girl on a swing she will lurch giddily from one side of the screen to the other). And after last week's hagiographic home movie about Vikram Seth it was a relief to be confronted with a sharp, questioning intelligence, even if it was mostly in the paintings you were shown.

It was a reminder, too, of the way that the ambitions of arts programmes used to be subservient to their subject matter - increasingly rare these days. Megahey's stylistic inventions, in particular a chain of overlapping images which linked Goya's life to his work, emerged from close attention to the paintings rather than a close attention to the director's career. There were some Seventies touches (snakes and naked nipples) but when necessary it was as plain as a lantern-lecture. It was unembarrassed about educating you and it made you wonder what they will repeat when Goya next comes to town.