Magazine article The Spectator

Infectious Enthusiasm

Magazine article The Spectator

Infectious Enthusiasm

Article excerpt

My thesis this week is on how television suddenly got good again. I doubt it stands up. It probably has more to do with the fact that I haven't seen any telly in quite a while so coming back to it has heightened my appreciation of the dross that's on. Still, I'll have a go.

First, Cruikshank: 1,000 Ways of Getting Drunk in England (BBC 2, Saturday). I guessed that this was going to be good because programmes presented by Andrew Graham-Dixon usually are. I like his deadpan wackiness, his visual tricksiness - both very Meadesian. And I like the way he always manages to teach you dozens of amazing things you never knew about art.

George Cruikshank, for example. I'm sure we all know enough to nod sagely at the mention of his name: late-Georgian caricaturist: illustrator of Sketches By Boz.

But did we know that most of the plot and characters in Oliver Twist were his invention? Or that George IV was so horrified by a cartoon of himself looking particularly fat and revolting that he bribed Cruikshank with L100 - easily a year's wages not to do any more? Or that Cruikshank ended his days as one of the nation's leading temperance campaigners? Despite the fact that after his death, he left behind a secret mistress, ten children and a cellar full of booze?

The excuse for all this was the recent rediscovery in the bowels of the Tate of a massive anti-booze painting called The Worship Of Bacchus done by Cruikshank towards the end of his life. The Victorians managed to bury it, Graham-Dixon argued, because it told them a truth they would rather disguise with chocolate-box pictures of cute little dogs, saintly children and suchlike.

I'm not sure that I buy that line. After all, we're just starting to realise that the Victorians were rather more complex than the hypocritical, piano-leg-dressing prudes mischievously recalled by Lytton Strachey. The real reason it was ignored, I suspect, is that though it's jolly nicely done and terribly interesting and took three whole years to do it's more a piece of propaganda than a work of art. But I suppose Graham-- Dixon had to pretend it was a masterpiece to make a better story.

In fact, with his tendency towards lurid exaggeration and comical simplification he's a bit of an early Cruikshank himself. But when he can bring such lively insight to everything he describes, who cares?

From that programme he did about Monet's sunset at Le Havre, I gleaned more about Impressionism in one hour than I had in a lifetime. …

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