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

 

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.

twitter.com/tds153

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

music
Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

film
Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
art
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
No Devotion's Geoff Rickly and Stuart Richardson
musicReview: No Devotion, O2 Academy Islington, London
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star