This article was originally published in The Dundee Courier on 17 December 2016.
WALT DISNEY: Saturday, BBC Two
TIME COMMANDERS: Monday, BBC Four
If we know one thing about Walt Disney it’s that he wasn’t, despite urban mythology, cryogenically frozen following his death in 1966.
According to the solidly revealing documentary, WALT DISNEY, he also wasn’t the bigoted right-wing tyrant that some biographers would have you believe.
Instead, I was left with the impression of an essentially decent if politically naïve man whose tireless, even reckless, drive towards perfection could sometimes spill over into ruthlessness.
Episode one of this two-part profile (it concludes on 17 December) examined how, from humble beginnings, he eventually built one of the most powerful entertainment empires on the planet.
A hugely ambitious idealist, he saw the potential of movie animation when the industry was still in its infancy. Like so many early Hollywood legends, this was the story of a talented, enterprising visionary who created a form of art and entertainment that simply didn’t exist before.
The only animator and film producer to become as internationally famous as his creations, Uncle Walt – he insisted that his often long-suffering employees always referred to him as Walt - was a jovial extrovert who loved being the centre of attention. With his slick coiffeur, pencil-moustache and appealing smile, he even looked like a film star.
Yet despite his self-made image as a humble purveyor of populist family entertainment, in private Disney craved acceptance as a serious artist. Considering the incredible technical innovations he and his profoundly talented team devised, no wonder he felt snubbed when masterpieces such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – the first animated feature-length film - were only awarded with condescending ‘special’ Oscars.
It’s also unsurprising that he suffered a nervous breakdown in 1931. He expected his staff to work as hard as he did, which was into the ground. Their painstaking efforts reaped phenomenal results via expert in-house lectures on cubism, impressionism and expressionism. He even encouraged them to take acting classes, so they could study their own faces and movements in pursuit of realism.
The result was animation of unprecedented emotional richness and visual depth. When the audience cried at Snow White’s death during the film’s premiere, Disney knew he’d succeeded in creating a whole new art-form.
Obsessive innovator, dubious taskmaster, romantic ideologue, soft conservative, Walt Disney was above all else a genius.
The distant past came alive via computer animation in TIME COMMANDERS, a game show in which members of the public commandeer legendary battles from history.
Inexplicably hosted by MasterChef’s Gregg Wallace, the latest series began in 202 BCE, as a trio of wrestlers from Glasgow re-enacted Ancient Rome vs Hannibal’s Carthaginians with three board game enthusiasts from somewhere unimaginably twee and middle-class.
The fun derives from watching the teams becoming swept up in whatever the hell is going on – it’s never quite clear - especially when they start bickering among themselves. Meanwhile, Wallace reiterates his unique talent for shouting over-excitedly – “You are getting mullered in the middle there!” – as a phalanx of experts offer urgent commentary.
Unless he was employed as a human cannonball fired at ferocious velocity, he’s literally the last man you’d want by your side in the heat of battle.
The splendidly named combat historian Mike Loades, a man so bellicose he makes Wallace sound like an ailing dormouse, was overshadowed by white-jeaned, pony-tailed action specialist Gordon Summers, who risked death by choking on his own swaggering self-regard. Make no mistake, this is a man who chose this line of work purely to buckle his swash while avoiding arrest.
I bet he uses his collection of Carthaginian javelins as a chat-up line.
Mildly educational and fairly entertaining, Time Commanders is a charmingly ridiculous distillation of the BBC’s core values.
Even Lord Reith, who knew the Carthaginians personally, would grudgingly approve.