The Weekend's TV: A history of art with all the trimmings

This Is Civilisation, Channel 4; Cranford, BBC1
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The Independent Culture

Matthew Collings was promising nothing less than salvation this week, channelling the spirit of John Ruskin to proselytise for the redemptive powers of art. "You live half a life," he accused us, paraphrasing Ruskin's message to our Victorian predecessors. "You can live a full one through art." Then, half-way through, he morphed into himself. "It can help us. I think it can actually save us." Ruskin, is clearly something of a hero for Collings, an exemplar of the critic as moral hero, not merely commenting on the artists he admires but wrestling their work into an all-embracing philosophical system. He expresses himself differently, though. "Everybody thought Turner was a git," Collings said, doing a turn about the painter who initially inspired Ruskin's Modern Painters. "He is an incredibly annoying guy as far as communicating goes."

I imagine there are people who feel something similar about Matthew Collings. Indeed, I've occasionally felt it when his own communicating overplays the geezer demotic. But it would be curmudgeonly not to acknowledge that the annoyance is rarely dull, or how tricky it is to achieve this kind of stream-of-consciousness delivery. Because the ability to walk and talk simultaneously is taken as a minimum proof of intellectual capacity, it's easy to miss the fact that doing it while pursued by a camera crew, in a public place, and timing your thoughts to match the scenery, is a far more difficult proposition. In this week's episode of This Is Civilisation, Collings did a minute-long piece to camera in the tourist broil of San Marco in Venice, weaving in and out of the crowds and the pillars of the Doge's Palace, all the while extemporising about the distinctions between organic Gothic and the lifeless geometric rationalism of the classical façade across the way. And you didn't have to buy the argument, or Ruskin's naive fantasies about the holistic life of the average medieval stonemason, to find yourself swept along by it.

There was more architecture in this programme than the first, literally and metaphorically, the vaporous, Turneresque impasto of Collings's introductory episode having given way to something more solidly structured. Collings's jocularity with the ad breaks was still in place ("Silence in court while the capitalist ads are on!") and there were still moments when you sensed his enthusiasm had carried him over the edge of a cliff, Wile E Coyote-style, and only his furiously running feet were keeping him in mid-air. At one point, he went into rhapsodies over a William Morris rush-seated chair. "You sit in it, you're thinking differently. You're against your own time. You're sitting differently. You're in the world differently. The world has changed." Yes, and your buttocks have, too. But this time I found myself wanting to listen to the argument and argue back, rather than just shout moodily.

I don't think Ruskin would have cared much for television at all, but he might have made a grumpy exception for Cranford, since he was an admirer of Mrs Gaskell and particularly liked the Cranford stories. He would have found last night's episode particularly congenial as well, what with Mr Carter staring furiously at the route of the dreaded railway. "This is how it begins," he said, watching the navvies stake out the ground. "A mark on the map, a double line of tape... As the railway comes closer, it will devour every acre in its path." "Will it come over that hill?" asks little Harry. "It will come through it and split the hill in half with gunpowder," replies Mr Carter, every bit as appalled as Ruskin was when they extended the railway to Windermere. Ruskin would almost certainly also have been in sympathy with Mr Carter's attempts to educate Harry for better things, thwarted in this episode by Lady Ludlow, in one of the series' rare moments of moral darkness.

The patchwork-quilt construction of the thing has been showing a bit more obviously in recent episodes, and the loss of Eileen Atkins is a bereavement not easy to come to terms with, but it's still delightful. This week, village gossip had poor Dr Harrison betrothed three times over: once to his housekeeper, Mrs Rose, who was persuaded to dye her hair to cement his affections, once to Sophy Hutton, who he actually wants to marry, and once to Miss Tomkinson, who has grasped the wrong end of enough sticks to build a small church. Topically enough, the episode also featured a bank crash, first brought to Miss Matty's attention when a banknote left to the local carpenter in a will is refused at the village shop. Being a shareholder in the company, she takes it as her moral duty to redeem the paper for gold then and there, a course of action that I don't suppose the big corporate shareholders in Northern Rock will be emulating.