TV preview: Brilliant documentary Dwarfs in Art: A New Perspective and Tattoo Age on ink masters

A sympathetic study of the ridicule meted out to people of restricted growth in culture

Sean O'Grady
Friday 17 August 2018 14:39 BST
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Presenter Richard Butchins, right, with academic Tom Shakespeare at the London Fine Art Studios
Presenter Richard Butchins, right, with academic Tom Shakespeare at the London Fine Art Studios (BBC)

I confess that I could not resist the title. Dwarfs in Art: A New Perspective does rather suggest that there was an old perspective that somehow had to smashed by some contemporary dwarfish iconoclasts. No small matter, then. I confess, though, second, that I possessed no such perspective on dwarfs in art. I’d seen a couple in those 17th-century portraits of posh families where they appear as servants or something, but that’s about it. Hardly a “perspective”.

How wrong I am. How wrong you may be, in the wider sense. For we all do have a cultural perspective of dwarfism, in the widest sense. Think Mini-Me, the late Verne Troyer, in the Austin Powers films. Think Munchkins. Think Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (Brothers Grimm and Disney versions). Think Warwick Davis in sitcom Life’s Too Short, at one point finding himself plonked in a loo and being described as the “evil toilet dwarf”.

Now you see how ingrained the humiliation and ridicule meted out to people of restricted growth has been. Filmmaker Richard Butchins, himself disabled after a bout of childhood polio, offers a sympathetic and involving history of the mostly disparaging treatment, by their follow human beings, of dwarfs. Long after the time when people (on the whole) would, say, make fun of their fellow citizens for having black skin or cerebral palsy or being homosexual, it is still okay to take the mickey out of dwarfs. It is the last, or one of the last, frontiers.

Over millennia, dwarfism has been portrayed – usually – as alien. Sometimes it is done satirically, but often it is no more sophisticated than the ancient Greek figurines of male dwarfs with enormous genitalia – the bigger the sex organ the less they can be esteemed as human beings (oddly enough, if you think about that one). Watching these past freak shows and grotesquery, as well as interviews with the present generation of people of restricted growth, reminds us of how far we’ve come – but also how much more there is to do. So, a brilliant documentary about art and culture presented on “thematic” lines and made accessible in the best traditions of the old Arena series. Not to be overlooked.

While I’m in a liberal sort of vein, I’m also inclined to recommend a couple of series on Vice TV. The Vice Guide to Film explores the on-screen representation of indigenous peoples. This episode explores the image of the “Hollywood Indian”, from the frozen Canadian north to the deserts and prairie so the Wild West in the classic westerns again, an overdue study of an over familiar genre.

Rally round: a 1973 Mini, plus Martin and Shirlie Kemp (BBC/Optomen Television Ltd) (BBC/Optomen Television Limited)

Maybe I’m not quite so liberal about the current craze for tattoos. This is because (in no particular order) so many of them are: badly drawn (as so memorably represented by Big Mandy in This Country); they are too often misspelt (e.g. “I am not afriad”, sic, turning the defiant into the comic); or else they are just aggressively in your face (literally in those L.O.V.E knuckledusters), or tasteless, like the one someone has of Nigel Farage on their calf with the slogan “cheer up snowflakes”. I am, though, prepared to concede that it’s big business and there are some legendary figures in its swirly world.

Vice TV, then, presents the second run of Tattoo Age in which we meet Don Ed Hardy, the “godfather of tattooing” – no hint or irony is apparent. Just don’t go getting any ideas about getting a lizard or Jeremy Corbyn or Tommy Robinson stuck to your backside. Please. Think again. Think, as Alan Bennett once urged you, think how pathetically juxtapositional your “live fast, die young” tattoo will look in the care home. Please, have mercy on your future self.

From the advance publicity I’m not sure I can heartily recommend Eight Go Rallying: the Road to Saigon. Having “lost” Top Gear, or rather Jeremy Clarkson’s one with the other two, the BBC seems intent on creating pastiches of the old. As with the new iterations of Top Gear this has resulted in pitifully inauthentic attempts to recreate the “magic” of the old team’s chemistry (usually lost on me I have to say), and, that having met with only limited success, they’ve attacked the issue by throwing celebs at it. And so we find Noel Edmonds, Martin Kemp and some others in a blatantly Top Gear-like format – driving across southeast Asia in various old cars. It sounds pointless, and, if it’s possible, even more pointless than the old Clarkson-dominated Top Gear. I mention it, though, because it has had some unflattering pre-publicity. No one got thumped though.

New faces: 'The Lenny Henry Birthday Show' includes fresh sketches from the comic (BBC)

Also there if you want it is The Lenny Henry Birthday Show, a celebration of the comedian's career including new sketches. I’ve never known what to make of Lenny, ever since I can remember seeing him on New Faces doing the sort of shtick us kids did in the playground – Frank Spencer impressions, in other words. His were better, obviously, and Lenny was quite an obviously gifted entertainer.

In the 43 years since he won New Faces, I think he was best just as himself – a standup comic up there doing gags, being witty and ironic, thoughtful and a touch “political”. All the other stuff, the Shakespearean roles, the sitcoms, even the sketch shows have been fine, but a needless diversion from his main talents. Like many a comedian before him there’s an odd sense that he was always looking to sort of better himself, seeking out new challenges, whereas in realty his quest was over many decades ago, because he is a very funny bloke and we all love him for that. A bit like Tony Hancock (which is praise). Anyway, I hope that’s not too sour, and happy birthday, Len.

Joking apart, I’m filled with curiosity at the prospect of Grayson Perry: Rites of Passage, in which the renowned artist helps families deal with traumatic and tragic experiences. He does this for them an others in the course of this series by e-inventing the great ceremonial rituals of life – funerals, marriages, christenings and the rest. Rather like he has with pots, but maybe less rude, in the circumstances.

Dwarfs in Art: A New Perspective (BBC4, Monday 9pm); Vice Guide to Film (Vice TV, Wednesday 10pm); Tattoo Age (Vice TV, Wednesday 9pm); Eight Go Rallying: the Road to Saigon (BBC2, Sunday 9pm); The Lenny Henry Birthday Show (BBC1, Wednesday 8pm); Grayson Perry: Rites of Passage (Channel 4, Thursday 10pm)

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