The Weekend's TV: Atlantis, Sun, BBC1
Perspectives: Robson Green and the Pitmen Painters, Sun, ITV1
They're living in a fantasy world
Monday 09 May 2011
The term drama-documentary sometimes reminds me about that old joke about chicken and pork sausages. "What's the proportion of chicken to pork?" inquires a prospective customer.
"Fifty-fifty," replies the butcher. "One chicken for every pig." The phrase tacitly implies some rough equivalence between the two basic ingredients, but the truth is that quantities can vary widely. Atlantis – BBC1's eye-wateringly speculative reconstruction of the destruction of Thera – appeared to be about 99 part drama to one part documentary. And, to continue the sausage metaphor, the filling wasn't exactly free-range and organic. In fact, it bore roughly the same relationship to historical scholarship as a chicken nugget does to a poulet de Bresse hen.
As with previous exercises in disaster reconstruction – such as Pompeii: the Last Day and Krakatoa – the producers had felt it necessary to build their narrative around a soapy emotional narrative, supplied in this case by Yishharu, an apprentice bull-leaper who has a difficult relationship with his merchant father and has just married a girl from Crete called Pinaruti. Returning from Crete, they find the island of Thera racked by earthquakes and the volcano in the bay looking ominously dyspeptic. The island and its harbour, Tom Conti assured us in purring tones, offered a good match for Plato's description of Atlantis, and its destruction, around three and a half thousand years ago may be the likeliest origin for that durable fable of disaster.
There were occasional flickers of documentary to back this up, moments when the image would mix from an archaeological photograph to the pristine reconstruction on the sound stage. But, to put it mildly, the film-makers appeared a little arbitrary about how they applied their scholarly knowledge. Sadly, we never got to see any of the characters using Thera's impressively advanced indoor toilets, the envy of the ancient world. And it seemed a little disappointing, too, that while the surviving wall paintings all depicted the island priestesses as boldly bare-breasted the reconstruction had given them modest bodices. The dialogue didn't exactly contribute to the sense of historical exactitude either. When Pinaruti had a fit of the vapours – after getting high on sacred saffron – the high priestess leaned in to console her: "It's OK," she said, stroking her hair. Why not go the whole hog? Why not have her say "Chillax baby... it's no biggie."
The plot-line looked to have been pieced together from recovered fragments of a Minoan series of Dynasty. How else to explain the startling moment at which Yishharu was discovered under the rubble of the temple in compromising proximity to a comely priestess, thus triggering a you-promised-you'd-changed weeping fit from Pinaruti. Or the utterly incredible resilience of all the main characters, who, while all around them were succumbing to toxic fumes or lava bombs, raced from top to bottom of the island shrieking terrible bits of dialogue at each other. "I'm scared, Yishharu," sobbed Pinaruti as the known world collapsed around her. "I'm scared of losing you." The final explosion has been calculated to have been 40,000 times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb, and it would have been a great mercy if it had occurred 50 minutes earlier in Atlantis. That would have given us the bull-jumping – which was rather excitingly filmed – and spared us the catastrophe that followed.
In Perspectives: Robson Green and the Pitmen Painters, ITV's pet Geordie went back home to tell the story of the Ashington Group, a set of coal miners who decided to learn about fine art. They'd originally wanted to do economics when they finished learning about evolution through the Workers Educational Association, but they couldn't find a suitable tutor. So they voted to tackle modern art instead, ending up with a teacher called Robert Lyon, who shrewdly realised that practice would be more seductive than theory. The resulting paintings – many of which are on show in a local museum – offer a unique record of a now vanished community and the story itself provided the raw material for a hit Lee Hall play, extracts from which were included here.
Robson Green was doubly qualified for the presenting gig. For one thing, his own father was a local miner so he had a genuine connection to the subject. His trip down one of the few remaining working coal mines – still a scary and demanding place – had the frisson of a fate narrowly avoided. For another, he can be reliably guaranteed to cry on camera, which means that a producer can be sure of getting an emotional money shot, such as the scene here where Green explained the painting he'd produced for the art critic Bill Feaver (who'd suggested that Green and his uncle try their hands at art just as the Ashington miners had). Robson's picture showed himself as a small boy, standing on his father's back, who was crouched in the darkness of a coal mine. "This is escape," he explained before beginning to weep. Full credit to Bill Feaver here, who had been confronted with a painting so ghastly that you would have thought it would defy a charitable response of any kind. "I think that little spirit of art has flickered again and it's brilliant," he said, after judiciously sidestepping any direct comment on the composition. Art is brilliant, that is, not the art.
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