Television: Drunk and disorderly at the Tate

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Indy Lifestyle Online
It Could have been Mark. It could have been Melvyn. It could have been any of us who, for whatever reason, agree to chair live discussions on television. I only thank God that the lightning, when it struck, struck Tim Marlow and not me.

A nice-looking, well-scrubbed, short-haired and earnest lad, Tim was holding the ring in The Turner Prize Discussion (C4, Tues), a follow-up to the ceremony earlier in the evening. Ten of the art world's most interesting critics and practitioners had been stuck together on sofas and leather upholstered chairs in a large room in the Tate, resembling a collage created, perhaps, by those chaps (I forget their name) who stick penises on plastic children's faces.

Their brief (the participants, not the penises) was to discuss the proposition of Sunday Times art critic Waldemar Januczak - argued in a short introductory film - that painting's time has passed. The programme was accordingly subtitled "Whatever has happened to painting?"

What then transpired, when the discussion began, depended critically on whether you were a viewer or a participant. Naturally, the viewer can only see what the director chooses, and only hear clearly the person whose microphone is activated. If something untoward happens, we at home may piece it together only gradually from muffled noises, odd glimpses and the distracted body language of the presenter and guests. Aficionados of TV disasters will recall the BBC News a decade ago, in which smothered yells and Nick Witchell's odd smile were the only clues to the fact that there had been a lesbian invasion, and that Witchell was - literally - sitting on the evidence.

For the presenter, however, it is a very different matter. He or she can see and hear only too clearly everything that is happening. Worse, the presenter has an idea about what might be about to happen. When the show is live, there is nowhere to hide, and there are only three strategies available to you: ignore it, suppress it (a la Witchell) or somehow incorporate it. And you have absolutely no idea which one is likely to work.

At home, the first signs that something was wrong came 30 seconds after the post-Waldemar resumption. Marlow's face seemed strained, and there was a low and occasional muttering coming from somewhere. These sounds, growing and diminishing in pitch, also punctuated the first salvos between arch-rivals Januczak (sporting a huge, ridiculous yellow bow tie) and a grizzled bearded gentleman called David Sylvester, who clearly loathed Waldy's guts.

Such was the locking of antlers of these two that the noises off seemed to quieten, and the emboldened cameras for the first time gave us a cutaway of their source: a tiddly, grinning bag-lady, smoking an illegal fag and swaying in her chair. But this apparition was not the result of an over-liberal admissions policy on the part of the Tate - it was actually Tracey Emin, Brit Artiste extraordinaire. And as soon as I clapped eyes on her, I feared for young Tim. Drunkenness and live television do not mix. Not if you are the presenter.

Marlow's first strategy was "ignore". This worked OK (save for the groans) while the discussion was happening well away from the bag-lady's sofa. But - as Tim always knew it must - the critical moment came when Martin, the guy sitting next to her had to be asked for his view. As he gave it, with her mike now live, she leaned into him and told him very affectionately to "fuck off". Quickly we went to the ad break.

From then on it got worse (or better). The mumbling and muttering became louder and contained more fruity language. Tim tried to get normal service to resume. "Matthew Collings, as a critical commentator ...", he began nervously, only to have a glass smash loudly in the background. Ignoring wasn't working.

So when Emin interrupted a long Roger Scruton analysis of the nature of Everything with, "You're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong!" Tim resorted to incorporation. "Why is Roger Scruton wrong, Tracey?" he asked gently. Perhaps he hoped that the shouting and smashing had all been a bad dream, and that Emin would now answer properly.

Oh dear. "He doesn't understand!" she replied, beginning to move inexorably from angry to maudlin. And then, "I'm leaving now. I want to be with my Mum. I don't give a fuck. You people aren't relating to me now. You've lost me completely." Tim (still in incorporating mode) heard himself ask, "Is that a generational thing, Tracey?" And we at home replied as one, "No, Tim, it's a pissed-as-a-fart thing."

She pointed vaguely and magisterially at one of the sofas. "He's fantastic, fucking excellent!" she slurred. Waldemar, thinking he was the object of this praise, preened a "thank you!", but Emin was talking about someone else completely. Anyway, now it was rip-the-mike-off-and-head-quickly- for-the-Ladies time. And, as Tim wrestled to get the show back on course, Tracey left noisily. "Bye everyone!" she called. "Bye Tracey!" Waldemar called back, treacherously, before settling down to tell everyone that they were cretins for having thought that he had said what we had all clearly heard him say.

When, finally, the show ended I wondered to myself who exactly had taken the decision that Emin was fit to appear on a live show, and had thus landed Tim in the shit. Whoever it was, the National Union of Presenters has got your number, mate. And we've all got yours, Waldemar.

What a long way it all must have seemed to Tim, from the heady highlights of The Turner Prize Live, just three hours earlier; a programme that Matthew Collings - then just a guy with alarming sideburns, an open-chested black shirt and interesting body hair - opened with the wonderfully inappropriate words, "the talking is over." Which was wrong: fortunately most of the programme was given over to a whole lot of talking, much of it pretty helpful to people like me who have not exactly kept up with BritArt, beyond dead sheep and Gilbert and George.

In between profiles of the four finalists, journalist Janet Daley represented the voice of reaction. This stuff wasn't art, she said, "art is doing something symbolic, something that transcends the everyday. They should go out and become drug addicts." Which is not advice you usually associate with the Daily Telegraph.

I particularly liked the beautiful Scot with the unhealthy interest in skeletons. The art critic from Dazed and Confused magazine (no, me neither), explained that it was all "to do with pathology, to do with death, to do with reconstruction", and then added crossly, as if aware of what many viewers must be thinking, that "we're constantly treated like idiots in this country".

Then there was the lass who made bouncy castles which emit squeaks and groans when you walk past them, and who, for relaxation, also plays in a band consisting of five bass guitarists. And the video artist, Gillian Wearing, one of whose things is to put the voice of one person in the mouth of another - a bit like Nick Park's Creature Comforts, except without the Plasticine animals. Her "entry" was an hour's film of some provincial Plods in school-photo formation. For Daley, this was "not art, this is just masturbation". Presumably true art in Janet's book must be like shagging.

The ceremony itself was peremptory to the point of abruptness. Wearing, pretty with long dark hair and looking like Sandie Shaw in a shimmery gold dress came up, took the cheque and said (I hardly paraphrase) "I'd like to say hello to my family in Birmingham, to thank my supporters. I can't think of anything else to say."

In retrospect I tried to understand the evening by referring to Equinox: Mind-readers (C4, Mon). This was a beautifully made and argued, linear film, ultimately about the innate differences between men and women. By brain-scanning what happens to people with Asperger's Syndrome (autism) - in which the individual cannot understand the society around him - and comparing it with Williams Syndrome (where the children have very low intelligence, but read the emotions of others perfectly), scientists had discovered a bit of the brain - a very ancient bit, tucked away right in the middle - that seems to contain our ability to relate to others socially.

And guess what? It's more developed in women than in men. The gals understand the expressions, social needs and emotions of others better than the blokes. Could it be, I wondered, that here was the explanation for Tracey's desire to get out of the studio, and for Waldemar's solipsistic determination to be in the centre of it?

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