Last Night's Television - True Stories: 21 Below, More4; Imagine... BBC1

Pictures of contentment

Reviewed,Tom Sutcliffe
Wednesday 02 December 2009 01:00 GMT

Regan described his compulsion in the tones of a man confessing to spiralling drug addiction. "I got a bit of money for a wedding present," he said quietly, "and I decided to get a picture, bought one and it kind of snowballed from there." Now Regan, who works in a factory bending bits of metal, can't break the picture-buying habit and the Arts Council – far from attempting to break the cycle of addiction – is helping to fund his habit. That's what Fran Landsman's Imagine... film was about – the Own Art scheme, which offers loans to the art-starved so that they can start to build their own collection. You can borrow up to £2,000, interest free, repayable over 10 months, so I don't imagine Charles Saatchi need worry too much about price inflation. But it does mean that those who care can have something original on their walls. If they buy shrewdly, from very young artists, they could end up with a great collection. And if they buy limited-edition prints they can have pictures by artists their neighbours might have heard of.

And they do care, passionately. The old cliché that every picture tells a story was given a new twist here, with buyers spilling out their personal history as a way of explaining their passion for the art they'd bought. David Pike, who now lives in a caravan on a smallholding, overlooking the farm he lost after the death of his wife, stared at a Peter Howson print and seemed to see in it every mistake he'd made, as well as the fact that he was still standing. One day, he said, he would scrape together enough money to build a log cabin on the 50 acres he's clung on to, and he could hang all the pictures currently stored in an overflow caravan. It occurred to you that if he stopped buying art that day might arrive a little sooner, but the consolation he took from the image was so sincere and heartfelt that it seemed curmudgeonly to think the thought.

It was a lovely film, essentially structured around the ordering and unveiling of two specially commissioned paintings, one for a human-rights lawyer who wanted an image of Justice on his walls and the other a portrait for Regan, featuring his beloved Lambretta scooter. In between, there was room for a scatter of vignettes of other collectors. Two young men showed off their latest purchase – a biomorphic pink ceramic wall sculpture – to one of their mums, who deployed that invaluably non-committal word "interesting" when first led into the presence of the work. "Do they light up at all?" she asked tentatively. "Are they body parts?... um... I honestly don't know what to say, Kenny." A woman who had inherited a large house stuffed with chintzy antiques proudly displayed her first solo purchase, a modest act of repudiation of everything that surrounded her. "Every time I look at this painting it makes me smile," she said, an intensity of connection that I don't suppose Charles Saatchi can afford any longer.

There were pictures here that were so horrible they should have been preceded by a warning to the sensitive, but Landsman negotiated the awkward question of taste with some skill, never condescending and alert to the back story that lay behind every choice. A couple who had met when she was burgled and he, a policeman, turned up to investigate now shared a joint enthusiasm for an artist called Beth Carter, one of whose pictures was just visible behind a clutter of postcards that had been wedged into its frame. "My late first husband was of the minimalist persuasion... He liked lots of white, he liked lots of open space... I had to restrain my collecting urge for many years," explained the woman "... and now it's not restrained any longer." The camera offered a wide shot to corroborate her wild understatement, revealing a grotto of knick-knacks and curiosities. "Certain artists seem to have a channel into the unconscious," she said, "and to have the product in the form of a drawing or a painting which can speak to my unconscious I find a priceless thing." Not bad as a description of the pleasures of art – and now available on easy terms, too.

21 Below, a True Stories documentary about a middle-class American family struggling with one member's unwise life choices (at 21 she already had two children and was pregnant again by her drug-dealer boyfriend) was an odd affair. Its credits featured a "writer", even though it had no formal voiceover, and its account of events seemed framed to present the oldest sister of the family (who seems also to have been one of the producers) as a martyr to family togetherness. She bent over backwards to keep the peace between her mother and her youngest sister – but you couldn't help but feel by the end that the film was her payback.

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