Portrait of the artist as an impressionist
Jonathan Stedall's Portrait or Bust (BBC 2) took the form of an excursion to Leeds Art Gallery, apparently the occasion for some genially low-key reflections on visual art. 'My appreciation of painting is quite shallow,' Bennett confessed, 'I find it hard to divorce appreciation from possession . . . however much I like a painting I seldom hang about in front of it but go and buy a postcard instead.'
Not Lord Clark then, but that wasn't really the point. When he addressed the camera Bennett wasn't on an educational mission, exactly; he was performing a portrait of himself, a 'talking head' as carefully composed as his brilliant monologues of the same name. 'I know exactly how she feels, wishing one had the gift of the gab,' he said, seeing an indignant old lady complaining that nobody was listening to her. It was the one truly false note in the film, a glum affectation from someone whose reputation rests on his dialogue (it reminded you that Bennett's reading of Eeyore is one of his finest performances).
Indeed Bennett's dialogue is so famous that it sometimes appears to have been franchised. In between his studied recollections of childhood visits to the gallery the camera would stray away to capture little vignettes of other visitors (attribution, School of Bennett). 'Country is country, isn't it, wherever you go?' observed an old lady in front of a landscape painting, putting topography firmly in its place. A man in a tweed hat bellowed misinformation at a foreign guest, quite unperturbed by his failure rate - 'No] I've got it wrong]' he would yell cheerfully as he read the title.
Much of this was rather rambling but it would be wrong to mistake the informality of the film for inconsequentiality. The anecdotes were perfectly balanced against the eavesdropping and against Bennett's plea for the Victorian values which had created such galleries (and which are so casually vandalised in the name of Victorian values). The film worked like a mobile, its various elements attached by almost invisible wires of association, swinging gracefully into different sorts of coherence.
In any case, drifting concentration is central to Bennett's comedy of self-consciousness and to his account of the ordinary pleasures of art. In front of Holman Hunt's glabrous Christ, for example, his mind wandered to his own schoolboy mortification, crucified on the gym bars to reveal his shamefully hairless armpits. It was a funny moment but pertinent, too, a reminder of our ability to see our own face in almost any image.
He ended with a real self-portrait, one painted when he was a schoolboy, and a last calculated anecdote which took you back to imitation - an account of being taken for David Hockney in an Arezzo tea- shop. Asked to sign the visitor's book he drew a Hockneyesque sketch and signed it with the painter's name, to the evident satisfaction of the proprietor. How recognisably Alan Bennett, you thought, to be recognised as someone else altogether.
Smashie and Nicey - the End of an Era (BBC 1) opened with a frantic race between the Controller of Radio Fab FM, Johnny Beergut, and his two lead disc jockeys. They made it to the press conference first, resigning seconds before he could announce their dismissal. This swansong for the characters created by Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse was funny and wonderfully detailed. Some disc jockeys joined in the fun (John Peel appearing in rocking chair and dressing- gown as John Past-Bedtime), but the more foolish ones were sulking. Apparently Dave Lee Travis doesn't get the joke at all, which is a mercy really.
ReviewThese heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
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