Monday, 15 August 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 13 August 2016.

The Mystery of Van Gogh’s Ear: Saturday, BBC Two

An Hour to Save Your Life: Tuesday, BBC Two
The story of Vincent Van Gogh severing part of his ear as a perversely romantic gesture is almost as famous as his immortal body of work. According to legend, the emotionally fragile artist turned up at the door of a Provence brothel in 1888, and handed a package containing a bloody slice of his own lobe to one of the working girls. 

It’s a sad, shocking story. But did it actually happen? As revealed in The Mystery of Van Gogh’s Ear, contemporary newspaper reports were suspiciously inconsistent when it came to details. Surely there must be accurate archive medical and police reports pertaining to the most notorious incident in the history of modern art?

Intrigued by this murky mystery, art lover Bernadette Murphy embarked on a seven-year mission to uncover the truth. A nice middle-aged lady with a snazzy line in neckerchiefs, the Provence-based adventures of this tenacious amateur sleuth are a Sunday night detective drama just waiting to happen: Vera meets Lovejoy.

Hosted by that other great tortured artist, Jeremy Paxman, in full-blown quizzical gravitas mode (honestly, you sometimes have to wonder if he’s even heard of Chris Morris), this engaging documentary managed to sustain its central conceit, even though the results of Murphy’s investigation recently hit the headlines. The journey was just as interesting as the final destination.

Murphy uncovered several hitherto unknown facts. “Rachel”, the object of Van Gogh’s affections, wasn’t a prostitute after all. She worked at the brothel as a cleaner. It’s possible that, as the victim of a rabid dog attack, she was one of the “wounded angels” with whom Van Gogh felt such empathy.

After poring through research by the author of the Van Gogh biopic starring Kirk Douglas, Murphy finally unearthed a conclusive medical diagram by the doctor who treated Van Gogh post-injury.

The great man didn’t just cut off his lobe, he severed his entire ear.

Understandably, Murphy was reduced to tears. Not only had she solved a mystery that’s eluded experts for over a century, she’d exposed the harrowing depths of a deeply troubled soul.

The programme also reinforced an inescapable point: uniquely among artists, our appreciation of Van Gogh’s work is intrinsically fused with our knowledge of his tragic personal life. He quite unwittingly forged the dubiously romanticised notion that genius and self-destruction are automatic bedfellows. While I understand the impulse to believe that – I include Brian Wilson and Peter Sellers among my heroes - it makes me feel uncomfortable.

Then again, would Van Gogh have created his masterpieces if he hadn’t been mentally ill? It’s a conundrum that even Jeremy Paxman can’t unravel.

The trauma continued in the latest series of An Hour to Save Your Life, in which cameras follow paramedics and doctors as they make critical decisions on behalf of accident victims.

Like most medical documentaries, it’s essentially a form of rubber-necking voyeurism. Yet despite its manipulative bombast – with its ticking clock graphics and split-screen technique, the production team are blatantly influenced by 24 - it does highlight the unflappable professionalism of people who hold lives in the balance on a daily basis.

All at once, it makes you value your wellbeing, worry about the freak fragility of existence, feel humbled in the presence of those who make a difference, and resent the fact that you’ve done nothing worthwhile with your life. 

Marginally less troubling than The One Show, it’s an existential minefield.

Thursday, 11 August 2016


A version of this article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 6 August 2016.

The ‘80s with Dominic Sandbrook: Thursday, BBC Two

Versus: The Films of Ken Loach: Saturday, BBC Two
Unless you happen to be a wealthy capitalist such as pop star Tony Blair or war criminal Gary Barlow, most rational people agree that Margaret Thatcher was the worst thing that ever happened to this country.

She destroyed British industry. She trampled over the poor. She encouraged a blind philosophy of selfishness and greed which led directly to the chaos of our miserably divided modern age.

That’s not subjective opinion, it’s a matter of historical fact. Or so I thought until my perceptions were altered to mind-blowing effect by The ‘80s with Dominic Sandbrook.

According to the maverick historian, despite what you may have thought in your blissful, woolly ignorance, Thatcher didn’t forge the consumerist boom of the ‘80s. She was merely reacting to it. If anyone is to blame for what happened during that destructive decade, it’s you, the avaricious consumer, not poor, benighted Mrs T.

Sandbrook, in typically rebellious style, didn’t actually support this leftfield theory with any persuasive evidence. He didn’t need to. The man has some sort of degree, he obviously knows what he’s talking about.

Sure, his programmes may look like glib, superficial overviews of a complex subject in which he presents dubious right-wing conjecture as objective fact. But that’s only because we’ve become brainwashed by “experts” who favour qualified rigour over self-consciously challenging revisionism. Michael Gove, as always, was right.

With his glasses, tank-top and reassuringly bald bonce, Sandbrook has the mien of an affable college lecturer. He seems harmless. But don’t be fooled by his disarming act. He’s Columbo, if Columbo had forgone a career apprehending wealthy criminals in methodical detail to pursue the far more important task of skewering received wisdom with the haphazard precision of an attention-seeking assassin.   

Cynics might argue that Sandbrook’s central theory that Delia Smith, not Margaret Thatcher, was the most powerfully influential woman in ‘80s Britain, is an example of contrary posturing at its most egregiously self-satisfied. To those people I’d say this: when was the last time you manufactured an ill-informed opinion for money on BBC Two? You’re just jealous.

History, as they say, is written by its Blue Peter competition winners. Sandbrook has more than earned his badge.

One can only imagine Ken Loach’s reaction to Sandbrook’s tract. I hope he didn’t electrocute himself by smashing a sensibly-shoed foot through his television.

The transmission of Versus: The Films of Ken Loach just two days after Sandbrook’s apologist guff felt like an accidental effort by the BBC to honour their commitment to balance.

This elegant, insightful, touching profile of one of Britain’s greatest film/television directors and “left-wing firebrands” highlighted the difficulties he’s faced over a remarkable, and inspiring, 50-year career.

Equal parts social justice campaigner and cinema artisan, Loach has always been driven by determined moral outrage and compassion. But his best work never feels didactic. Truth and humanity are always paramount.

Sometimes, that’s a questionable approach. Did he really need to film the wee, tear-stained boys from Kes being caned for real during an admittedly powerful scene? He can be ruthless in his pursuit of authenticity.

During Sandbrook’s beloved Thatcher years, Loach was reduced to directing McDonald’s adverts for money. “That sits really badly on my conscience,” winced the self-effacing Marxist nation-hater.

Nevertheless, like Sherlock and Moriarty, Loach and Sandbrook have much in common. Both disguise their true motives behind an unassuming, genteel veneer.

The key difference is that Loach actually lives in the real world.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016


This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 30th July 2016.

Keith Richards: The Origins of the Species: Saturday, BBC Two

The Marvellous World of Roald Dahl: Saturday, BBC Two
Keith Richards and Roald Dahl: together at last! They may not seem like natural bedfellows, but during last Saturday’s generous documentary double-bill, it struck me that both were natural-born storytellers and nonconformists who have enriched our lives immeasurably.

If you had to define the essence of Keith – eau de Keef - then look no further than the moment in Keith Richards: The Origins of the Species when he recounted a charming childhood memory of his visits to Dartford marshes.

“I saw my first dead man there,” he noted. That faux-casual use of “first”, as if it was merely a throwaway detail, spoke volumes about a man who understands his own myth.

This entertaining hour in the company of one of rock’s great raconteurs was a Rolling Stones documentary with a difference: it ended at the point where the band were about to form.

It focused instead on The Human Riff’s formative years in monochrome, bombsite Dartford, told in his own colourful words. It also functioned as an iconoclastic piece of post-war social history. A keen history buff with a distinctive eye for detail, Keith should have his own BBC Four series by now. If they don’t hurry up, Channel 4 will poach him as the new host of Time Team.

Despite his legendary intake of Bad Things, his memory is remarkably lucid. Reliably funny and engaging – your cup would runneth over with joie de vivre if you’d survived what he has – he told his story with a throaty mix of wry nostalgia and genuine warmth, especially when discussing his family.  

Julien Temple, a director famed for such classic documentaries as The Filth and The Fury, bolstered Keith’s anecdotes in typically inventive style with an eclectic collage of archive footage scored to Stones music and period pop hits. His camera revelled in the lizard-like contours of rock’s craggiest visage. That nicotine cackle and woozy grin were in full, glorious effect.

When infant Keith’s England was being bombed during the war, Roald Dahl was protecting it as an RAF pilot. The Marvellous World of Roald Dahl began with him crashing his plane in Africa. He was lucky to survive. A life-changing incident, it inspired his first piece of published writing. He frequently returned to the magic and terror of flight.

As this fascinating and touching essay made clear, all of Dahl’s classic yarns contained elements of autobiography. Childhood encounters with vicious adults, the tragic loss of comrades during the war, even his own wife’s stroke – her mangled language inspired The BFG – all found their way into his work. Yet he incorporated these dark matters with such sensitivity, they never felt ghoulish.   

Told using extracts from his memoirs, as read by Robert Lindsay and illustrated by the great Quentin Blake, it confirmed my belief that the most beloved children’s author of all time – face facts, Walliams – was one of the greatest literary geniuses of the 20th century.

He understood implicitly that children love reading about frightening things, just as long as the author lightens the darkness with humour.

He endured the horrors of war. His survivor’s guilt inspired him to write about children who’d lost their parents. One of his daughters died when she was only seven. When his young son had a severe brain injury, he co-invented a valve to alleviate his condition. Several thousand other children benefited from this invention, which was never sold for profit.

An extraordinary man. A kindly subversive. Keith and Roald both.