Last Night's Viewing: Carved with Love: the Genius of British Woodwork, BBC4 Inside Death Row with Trevor McDonald, ITV


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The Independent Culture

One day someone will take away BBC4 and there will fall across the land a mighty lamentation, even though relatively few people watch it now and we all pretty much take it for granted. BBC4's problem – and this is by way of a confession – is that its programmes sometimes sound so worthy on paper that you're inclined to promise yourself you'll catch up later on iPlayer and watch something more indulgent instead.

And then, of course, you never do, since television spews coarser indulgences at you every night. Which is how you might come to miss Carved with Love: the Genius of British Woodwork, the kind of deliciously guileless programme that makes BBC4such a delight. It doesn't feature celebrities, comedians, viewer voting, synthetic challenges or anyone going on a bloody "journey" – and it's as soothing as switching a radio from thrash metal to a harpsichord recital.

The subject this week was Grinling Gibbons – "our own Michelangelo" according to one formulation, and "a clever bloke showing off to toffs" according to another. And the resulting film was both a hymn of praise to the art of limewood sculpture and an object lesson in the vagaries of fashion. Gibbon trained in Amsterdam with the city's most fabled sculptor and came to London calculating that the Fire of London would helpfully generate an upturn in commissions.

His plan didn't quite work, since he first spent years working in some poverty in Deptford. But he was then discovered by John Evelyn, who (according to his version at least) spotted the young Gibbons carving a relief of a crucifixion, based on Tintoretto. And although his early compositions were a little too Catholic in content to suit the times, his astonishing skill with wood soon brought him royal patronage.

His panel of the Stoning of St Stephen, now in the V&A, is astonishing. The only thing he couldn't carve in wood, you feel, is a stone in mid-air, but even that might not have been beyond him. Contemporary craftsmen working in limewood demonstrated the techniques he might have used and – inadvertently – just how striking Gibbons' work still is.

Their pieces were very, very good. His was visibly better. Showing off, certainly, since carving a wind-blown page of sheet music out of wood inevitably makes the viewer think of the act of making rather than of what the object symbolises. "You have to be patient and not rush it," said a modern carver as he demonstrated carving a petal, "otherwise you hear a sickening crack." That absent but vividly imagined sound of splintering is what still makes Gibbons' pieces so astounding.

Sadly, like many people who become the last word in fashion, Gibbons eventually fell out of it again, the moneyed gentry having become surfeited on floral swags and baroque exuberance. Gibbons went into funerary sculpture, but his tomb for Sir Cloudesly Shovell, an Admiral of the Fleet he depicted lounging rather louchely on a cushion, got terrible reviews and he died in relative obscurity, a commemorative plaque only being attached to his grave years later.

Inside Death Row with Trevor McDonald confirmed my long-held suspicion that Sir Trevor is no Werner Herzog. The latter's trip to visit Death Row inmates was marked by his cherishable tendency to lurch into metaphysics: "How does time function? Does it stand still or does it race?" Herzog asked one bemused inmate.

Sir Trevor takes a more straightforward route: "Does being on Death Row take a physical and emotional toll on you?" he asked one man, who, perhaps fortunately, was separated from his interrogator by thick steel bars. As usual there were numerous instances of the extremity of the American justice system. The term "overkill" is perhaps indelicate – but how else would you describe a sentence of 170 years handed out to a prisoner who was just 13 at the time the crime was committed? He's eligible for parole when he's a 100.