Tom Sutcliffe: How Madonna put Edward VII in the shade

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The Independent Online

It's intriguing, I think, that an exhibition of early colour photographs of Edwardian grandees should get newspaper exposure hard on the heels of a widely disseminated sepia photograph of a contemporary VIP. The Edwardian photographs were taken by Lord Rothschild – a photographic hobbyist rich enough to try his hand at the Lumières' early Autochrome process, and well-connected enough to be able to ask King Edward VII himself to say cheese (though judging by the king's expression in the picture he looks to have declined the invitation).

The sepia picture was that authorised version of Madonna as the Madonna, cradling Mercy in her arms and mutely reproaching the Malawian authorities for their iconoclastic disregard for celebrity compassion. And between them they're quite telling about the way that colour colours our attitudes to photographic truth.

The Edwardian photographs were implicitly presented as an increase in our knowledge of the Edwardians, though the mere addition of colour couldn't really be said to have been revelatory. I don't suppose it will have surprised anybody to find that Edward VII's face was pink or that Edwardian tigers, like their modern counterparts, are pale orange with black stripes. And since we have no way of calibrating how accurately these photographs recorded the colours in front of the lens, you can't draw any more subtle conclusions from them either.

It isn't possible, for example, to diagnose the exact condition of the king's health from the tint of his complexion. And yet it's undeniable that the images somehow yank the Edwardians closer to us – rescuing them from antiquity into a place where one can think of them as something other than two-toned and two-dimensional.

The Madonna photograph travels in the other direction – deliberately surrendering colour so as to make the image seem detached from contemporary events and the bright palette of the "pap" shot. In doing so, it also pushes away from news and towards art and history, exploiting the fact that colour was held at bay by serious fine-art photography for decades after the technology first made it available (an unusual instance of willed anti-modernity).

This remains a powerful piece of visual rhetoric. Go to an up-market family photographer and you will almost certainly be offered the option of monochrome pictures, and you may well take it up with the sense that these will look more refined, more tasteful, somehow more "dynastic". Colour is the territory not of artists but of technicians and salesmen, those only interested in "likeness", that most vulgar of artistic ambitions. Effectively Madonna's sepia photograph had time deceptively embedded into it – to suggest that this putative relationship already existed and had done for some time. It presented itself with the patina of instant nostalgia.

There is a lot going on here – photographic snobbery about tonal range, the medium's inherent embarrassment at its mechanical access to depiction, the erroneous belief that colour is not "classical" – but there's also that unshakeable companion to most British cultural questions – class.

Colour is Torremolinos, today and triviality. Monochrome is history and high art. That's why when we look at Edward VII, glumly regal, with his green kilt and the little red flash on his stocking, he looks much more approachable to us. This isn't a monarch in a portrait, it's a chap in a snapshot – and the grass turns out not to be greener at all, but exactly the same colour as it is on our side of the fence.

The great conjuring trick that is After Dido

Katie Mitchell has confirmed her reputation for dividing critics with her new production After Dido, which left quite a few reviewers tepid and others glowing. You'll be glad to know that Edward Seckerson, who reviewed it for this paper, got it spot on in his rave review – by which I mean that he agreed with me. Even within this consensus though there's room for difference. He found it very moving and I didn't – though so dazzlingly inventive was the staging that I didn't notice until some time afterwards and even when I did, I didn't care.

Mitchell effectively creates a live television broadcast of three contemporary stories that accompany Purcell's music for Dido and Aeneas, with the finished version on a screen above the stage and "factory floor" beneath, where singers and stage-hands create sound-effects, flashbacks and mood lighting as they go to feed into the "film".

It is like watching a conjuring trick from back stage and front stage simultaneously – oscillating between suspended disbelief and knowing admiration at the sleight of hand – and at the heart of it sits Purcell's music, artifice and pretence and tricks of the trade coming together to create something that makes you entirely forget that it's all illusion.

Cute kids, talent shows and Jedi police...

Like everyone else in the world, barring a few Somali goat herders who don't have access to YouTube, I enjoyed Susan Boyle's triumph over the dubious on Britain's Got Talent. But my real admiration is reserved for the way in which Simon Cowell crafts his apparently spontaneous dramas of ordinary Joe apotheosis.

Take this weekend's show for example, during which a little crowd-pleaser called Shaheen, pictured, turned up to prod the crowd into making that mooing noise we reserve for kittens and small children. Shortly after Shaheen had launched into an Amy Winehouse number Cowell stopped him in mid-flow. Shocked gasp from crowd. Cut to Shaheen's mother looking anguished. Was Simon really going to drop-kick a kitten into the wings?

Simon sternly asks Shaheen whether he sings anything else and Shaheen says yes, he can do a Michael Jackson number too. And, by marvellous serendipity, a recording of it just happens to be in the theatre's sound system, cued up and ready to go. Shaheen licks into the number, crowd erupts, Simon smiles and sinks the programme's hooks a little deeper into the audience.

Why did Susan Boyle's hair look more dishevelled on her big night than it did when she was doing follow-up interviews in her own home? Because it made for better television that way. Most of the acts (including many of the notional successes) are mediocre, but the pantomimes of astonishment and surprise from the judges are world-class stuff.

*It's hard to know quite what to make of the revelation that eight members of the Strathclyde Police force (plus two of its civilian staff) had identified their religion as "Jedi" for a diversity questionnaire.

On the one hand, you could argue that it's important that a police force should be representative of the community it serves (and assaults). Since around 14,000 Scots identified themselves as Jedi worshippers in the 2001 census they would presumably like to know that their religious sensitivities are understood (don't make light-saber swooshing noises to wind them up).

On the other hand, should a police force really be as representatively childish as the society from which it's drawn? We don't want them to be representatively bigoted or violent or lacking in self-restraint, after all – but to be a cut above the people they're dealing with. Surely the same thing should hold true for common sense. It may be time for a silliness clause in the contract.