Last Night's Viewing: White Heat, BBC2
Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau, BBC4
The return of Mad Men this week should have left White Heat badly exposed, although the scale (if not the ambition) of the two dramas is so unequal as to make comparison almost meaningless. For a start, Mad Men has advanced a mere six years in more than 50 hours of television, a luxurious pace that has been able to absorb social change incrementally, while White Heat has so far encompassed 14 particularly tumultuous years in just four hours – a sort of Reduced Shakespeare Company approach to British post-war history – feminism, race relations, Irish nationalism, gay liberation and the implosion of the left (abridged).
Within such constraints, Paula Milne has done a remarkably good job, and you feel at least that she has lived the decades she's dramatising. Despite the occasional anachronistic detail (that premature Who song, for example, in the opening episode) it feels right, unlike The Hour, which felt more like educated guesswork.
The props department dressed the street scenes in last night's 1979 episode with bulging rubbish sacks, budget-friendly shorthand for the Winter of Discontent, while the trusty cutaways to television news chronicled the arrival of Margaret Thatcher. Trust-fund Tribune journalist Jack (Sam Claflin's hair morphing into Steve Coogan's) was attempting to get selected in an unwinnable seat in the Cotswolds (is there a winnable seat for Labour in the Cotswolds?), Jay was getting "queer-bashed" on Hampstead Heath, Victor was being hassled so much under the sus laws that he obligingly assumed the position at the mere sight of policemen, and proto-yuppie newlyweds Alan and Lily were having impromptu sex while viewing a house. "Won't be long," Lily shouted to the estate agent downstairs. Alan had his back to us so it wasn't possible to see how he took this slur.
Enough to be getting on with, you might think, especially as Charlotte was trying to square her feminism with the advent of the first woman prime minister. But, no, Orla, the saintly Irish woman, was bringing home an Afghan refugee in what felt like an attempt to shoehorn in issues with contemporary resonance. But mainly this fourth episode, titled "The Personal Is Political", proved that obnoxious Jack really wasn't able to translate the political into the personal, but since we already knew that anyway, it didn't really take us anywhere new. In a week when Don Draper returned to intrigue us, this particular comparison wasn't pretty.
One man who found out the hard way that the personal is political was Oscar Wilde, whose imprisonment for gross indecency in 1895 shattered the British avant-garde for at least a generation. As Stephen Smith explained in the second of Sex and Sensibility: the Allure of Art Nouveau, the disgrace-by-association of Aubrey Beardsley, the outrageous – and outrageously gifted – illustrator of Wilde's Salome, left English Art Nouveau in the hands of the retail trade.
While the Liberty department store was selling Art Nouveau to the middle classes, Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his overlooked wife and fellow Scottish artist, Margaret MacDonald, were busy influencing Gustav Klimt, and not vice versa as you might have assumed. It was patriotically pleasing to see Great Britain leading the way, although Smith – a presenter in the determinedly straight-faced Jonathan Meades mould (how you sometimes yearn for Melvyn Bragg's boyish grin) – decided he needed to inject some novelty into what otherwise would be a succession of interviews with curators. He presented a modern-day aesthete with a bunch of sunflowers, and in cross-examining Beardsley's biographer, Matthew Sturgis, in a barber's chair, the implication was that that a suitably anxious-looking Sturgis was going to be given Beardsley's weird choirboy-meets-Nosferatu fringe. The narrative didn't really need such gimmicks, as Smith otherwise managed to make his 1890s feel somehow more urgent than the 1970s of White Heat.
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