Last Night's Viewing: Bert and Dickie, BBC1
A History of Art in Three Colours, BBC4
They must have been tempted to call it Rowlocks of Fire surely? True, Bert and Dickie has an alluringly salacious note to it – as if it might be rhyming slang for a rushed act of sexual congress – but it was clear from the very beginning that the inspiration for William Ivory's Olympic drama lay in Hugh Hudson's 1981 film about the runners Eric Liddell and Harold Abrahams. Like Chariots of Fire, it had English class snobbery, the notional charms of British amateurism and a rousing moment of patriotic triumph to finish with. Unlike Chariots of Fire, there was no God and the field of battle was a stretch of the Thames near Henley.
Like any good sporting biopic, the film began with its big finish – a title card cueing up the Olympic double sculls final of 1948, not an event that reverberates in many British hearts, I would have thought, but which was nonetheless the centrepiece here. And, as the oarsmen settled in their seats and the another title card took you to Six Weeks Earlier, the comically truncated preparation period being the first clue that Olympic glory in 1948 was a very different matter to Olympic glory now.
It's a chalk-and-cheese affair it turns out: Bert is the chippy son of a boatbuilder, the sort of bloke who will be obliged to use the tradesman's entrance at the Leander Club, while Dickie is very definitely a chap, ex-Etonian, scion of a famous rowing father who's already won Olympic gold himself. After a forced marriage at the hands of a brash new coach, they rub each other up the wrong way (though not in the wrong way, if you understand me, it's not that kind of drama) and then discover that the union of Toff and Rough might just work. Both also discover that they share a father problem. Bert's is over-controlling and under- demonstrative, Dickie's is wedded to an outdated notion of sporting gentility that has left him believing that training with excessive zeal is tantamount to cheating.
In between rows in the boathouse about the nature of true amateurism there were little vignettes of Clement Attlee and Lord Burghley (the Sebastian Coe of 1948), talking about how you stage an Olympics on three shillings and eight pence, which was pretty much all that was left in the national coffers, as well as regular references to the starvation diet on which most British athletes were training. And, naturally, everything ended well, with father and son rapprochement and Maria Callas singing "Vissi d'arte" over the final race (courtesy of Bert's mum's passion for Italian opera). I don't know how far Ivory's script stuck to the known facts – particularly when it came to the wildly implausible moments of emotional sharing towards the end of the drama – but if this was art imitating life then life was imitating a rather corny 1950s B-picture. You have to hope the drama inside the arena will be a little more nuanced and a good deal more unpredictable.
A quest for gold was also at the heart of A History of Art in Three Colours, a fine notion in theory but a little disappointing in practice. It wasn't that there was anything essentially wrong with James Fox, a presenter from the Whispering Rapture school of aesthetic appreciation (he's very fond of the word "utterly", which seemed appropriate somehow). And it wasn't that he didn't show you some remarkable things, including the gold vault in the Bank of England and Benvenuto Cellini's famous salt cellar disassembled for conservation. But the connective argument was distinctly underwhelming. For one thing, gold wasn't actually treated as a colour here so much as a raw material. And the exploration of its symbolic use rarely went much beyond "It's precious, shiny and otherworldly, so it's used to represent the precious, shiny and otherworldly." Not solid but electro-plated.
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