The Weekend's Viewing: Crucifixion, Sun, Channel 4
Titanic, Sun, ITV1
Crucifixion, Channel 4's film about Gunther von Hagens' latest exercise in human taxidermy, was like one of those fairground chimeras mocked up in the 19th century to milk the gullible of their pennies.
In the case of the fairground, they usually involved half of a monkey and half a fish, cunningly stitched together to produce a "genuine" mermaid. Here, the component parts were two different kinds of television programme: a serious and respectful film about the cultural significance of crucifixion, featuring contributors such as the art historian Martin Kemp and Bishop John Arnold, and another instalment of Channel 4's part-work raree show, starring the world's richest anatomist. The join, unfortunately, was all too visible, as you flicked between reflections on this particularly hallowed artistic theme and Gunther in his German factory, doing something grisly to a corpse.
There's an odd jauntiness to Gunther's gothic schtick. Visit one of his industrial embalming centres (the business has gone global now) and you may spot a human skeleton waving at you from a high window. He likes to tease, in a cadaverous sort of way. But he also likes to pretend that what he does is art. "I want to move people's minds and souls," he said, talking of his plan to create a life-size crucifixion tableau using skeletal remains and a plastinated vascular system for the body of Christ. He plans to take it across the Alps and present it to the Pope, which should be an interesting moment, if it ever arrives. He also talked about it being "in the service of Christianity", which is perhaps something for Christians to decide rather than Gunther himself, given that he's an avowed atheist.
Gunther, it turned out, is enduring a calvary of his own right now, having been diagnosed with Parkinson's. This has slurred his speech and given an acutely personal edge to his daily stock-in-trade. A sequence in which he talked about the electrodes now implanted in his brain to control his illness was almost immediately followed by images of the net of veins that cradle the head, cast in red plastic and pierced through by steel support rods, as if offering a window into his own skull. His illness also seems to have sharpened the sense that his work is a kind of bulwark against personal dissolution. "This Jesus will last long after my death and say, 'Built by Von Hagens'," he explained as he worked on the figure. He was too ill to attend the final erection of the finished piece, but by then everybody else interesting – bishops, art historians and fellow artists – had disappeared as well, so that you were left only with the bare bones and not the disputatious flesh that made it interesting.
I don't know if anyone is still watching Titanic to find out what happens, but those remaining on the voyage to relish the wilder excesses of Julian Fellowes' dialogue had a treat last night. It began with a medal-winning example of force-feed exposition as Winston Churchill stomped around the site of the Sidney Street siege, demanding to know where the ringleader had gone: "Yes! Peter the Painter!... Policeman-killer-in-chief! Where is he?" Wait. Don't tell me. I'm pretty sure I know this one. Could it be on the Titanic ?
Quite why Fellowes thinks he has to add superfluous thrills to a story that already contains tragedy, hubris, injustice and disaster, I do not know. But he does, stirring in runaway anarchists, jewel thefts, and unexpected reunions to add to the stew. Peter the Painter suddenly turned into Peter the Snogger when he encountered the electrician's wife in steerage, though there was no explanation of where they'd met before, only a ludicrous bit of antler-locking between husband and lover. "Come. We can see her and the children aboard boats," said Peter confronting his rival. "Then we can fight to the death." Another iceberg, please.
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