sun 25/08/2019

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities, BBC Four

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities, BBC Four

Does James Fox have anything interesting to say? Judging from this series, no

James Fox in front of Klimt's The Kiss at the Belvedere, Vienna© BBC/Helen Shariatmadari

Eight seconds in and my toes were already curling. Perhaps it was the authority with which the voiceover delivered some juicy clunkers. “If you wanted to be an artist in 1908, Vienna is where you’d come to make your name,” it intoned. Wow, who’d bother with Paris, eh? Picasso, you idiot, messing about with Cubism in a Montmartre hovel when you could have been sticking gold leaf on your decorative canvases, à la Klimt. 

Or perhaps it was James Fox’s predilection for banal generalities – cut-and-paste pronouncements that could be applied anywhere, any time. The “insights” never really got beyond the usual mish-mash of clichés. “In this city, art and politics, dreams and nightmares, creation and destruction, were locked in a fatal embrace,” he said, clasping hands together in a vice. Ach, you can read stuff like that off the back of a cornflakes packet, or at least its pocket guide equivalent.

If only Adolf hadn’t been so attached to picturesque scenes of a genteel bygone era

I presume the voiceover voice was eventually supplied by Fox, the presenter of this three-part series whose first episode took us to Vienna in the year 1908 (next week Paris 1928, then New York 1951, each an apparently seminal year), but in the available preview it belonged to a unnamed minion from the production team, with the photogenic Fox only doing the bits to camera. Since he hadn’t yet had time to dub his own voice I did naturally wonder whether Fox had even read the script he was credited with writing. Best to disown it, James. 

This was BBC Four in talking down mode, which doesn’t bode well for the shape of things to come for a channel championed for its intelligent arts broadcasting. But the programme wasn’t without interest, since it gave walk-on parts to a host of indeed brilliant characters who’d painted, written, built or composed their way into the 20th-century canon (before some dropped out of it again): Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, Freud, Loos, Schoenberg – as well as the now very little-known Austrian writer Else Jerusalem, whose literary novel The Red House, set in a Vienna brothel, became a bestseller that year.

Hitler, the failed art student, had a bit-part too. If only Adolf hadn’t been so attached to picturesque scenes of a genteel bygone era of Vienna’s mythical past, if only he’d got on with the modernist programme whose currency was the angry, alienated soul, than we might have been spared the slaughter of the Second World War, and the death camps – but, on second thoughts, I really don’t think counterfactual histories are Fox’s strongpoint. As the direct precursor to that latter barbarity, perhaps we might credit the First World War with a bit more weight. And, of course, in 1908, anti-Semitism was rife. Europe was rank with it. Vienna was rank with it (though, of course, many of its groundbreaking artists and thinkers were Jewish). Its undercurrent was ugly and arguably ready to explode in the wake of a ruinous peace.

Fox touched upon this, of course, but the suggestion of a few bad pennies seemed a bit infantile to me, at least as it was implied here. Maybe I’m being a little unfair, but Fox has a particular style that grates: exaggerating some things with a hyperbolic flourish; downplaying everything else that doesn’t have an immediate televisual object as its focus. What’s more, and here’s the nub of it: he never has anything interesting to say. "Wow" and "Boo" just doesn't cut it.

We're probably all aware of the current fashion for delivering cultural histories through the lens of one apparently epoch-making year, but what a tired conceit this has already become. It was the year Klimt painted The Kiss; it was the year Schoenberg wrote his Second String Quartet. It was the year…and it was the year. But as we saw, Fox had to be a bit flexible with his year: Schiele, though precocious, was only 18 in 1908, and as for Freud, his most important work, The Interpretation of Dreams, was published almost a decade earlier, his Oedipul ideas already taking shape. Fox gave us the story of Little Hans and his Oedipul equine phobia instead.

Really, there are far more interesting ways to approach a history of ideas. Plundering a single year and inevitably doing a bad shoehorn job isn't one of them.

Fisun Guner on Twitter

This was BBC Four in talking down mode, and it doesn’t bode well for a channel championed for its intelligent arts broadcasting

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Editor Rating: 
2
Average: 2 (1 vote)

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Comments

Why not write constructive criticism instead of a spiteful attack! Very poor critique, disappointing and smacks a tad of the green eyed monster rising!

Thank you for your constructive comment - I'll now go away and think about it. Your perspicacity leaves me humbled.

I totally agree.

I thought the review contained quite a lot of constructive criticism that Dr Fox would do well to heed.

I loved the episode about Viena and I learned some things I'd never heard before about the city and its people. The story telling and the camera's work were very good IMO. I am waiting for the second story about Paris!

I also heard interesting things on the Vienna programme but Fox is far too lazy to be allowed to front such programmes (another Dan Cruickshank?). He ought to take some trouble to read what he is expected to spout before he does so and, since he was talking about a German-speaking city, it would have been lovely if someone had told him to pronounce names like "Reichsrat" and "Lueger". I think he managed Hitler's name O.K. though? He talked a deal of nonsense about some of the works shown, turng Klimt's "The Kiss" into a symbolic rape. But he's been told that he's an "Art Historian" and, as such, probably understands almost nothing about Art. Too busy with self-promotion to bother to look at Art without some previous advice from another "Art Historian". I do not wish to throw all his profession into the same bucket though: Miss Guener writes very sensibly. .

The second episode of Dr James Fox's show, on Paris 1928, was superb and far-reaching. He has with the ability to sometimes draw out the essence of a work with a neat bit of original analysis. For example, he managed to make sense of Mondrian (no mean feat, as Mondrian himself doesn't manage to). I watched the first episode and it was not as engaging as Paris, but then, neither was the material. With regard to Fisun Guner's critique, why spend five lines writing about "counterfactual history" if it isn't relevant to the programme? - it may be your style, but as you say, possibly not Fox's (although who knows?) And then why dismiss his as a style that grates and infantile? Horses for courses, surely. Takes all sorts. There is plenty to enjoy in this series which is here dismissed as the BBC in "talking-down mode".

After watchiing all three, find I disagree both with reviewer and this commenter. I found Vienna a decent enough job, and Paris very disappointing. New York stood far above those earlier two, I would hazard for reasons including - Fox is really quite good interviewing living people (and it certainly breaks up his solo pieces to camera) - using visual archive material achieves the same thing (archive speaks for itself and fascinatingly, so we pay less attention to presenter) + he seemed actually more at home/at least as at home with literature than with the visual arts sometimes. Hope anyone directing him in future settles more for close-ups though, rather than all that distracting arm waving?

ps - I do completely agree with your reviewer on this one - "Wow" and "Boo" just doesn't cut it - the "wow" exclamation is all over BBC 4 arts programmes - Andrew Graham Dixon is a culprit, too. Anyone uttering it should be sent to the corporation's 'naughty step'?

I've just recently watched the first 2 episodes as I didn't have time to catch them on tv first time 'round. I find the reviewer has totally hit the nail on the head here. I just expected something more from BBC4. By the end of the programme on Paris I found I was watching only for the pictures and when the talkover was temporarily lost, I felt a moment of relief, before old James came back with yet another loaded pause. (How someone above can say his strength is interviewing people, I'll never understand. The most cringeworthy moments were his staged laugh-alongs with the pianist, and as for his interview about Black Americans in Paris, I thought that kind of uninformed attitude to race relations had died out in the 80s, at least on the BBC) Really, can't someone coach Dr Fox to drop all the laden gravitas and write a narrative that can spark up at least a couple of enlightening moments for the viewer? An opportunity missed, sadly.

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