A Rough Search for Forgiveness: Andrew Billen on Brian Sewell's Sexually Charged Series about God and Art. (Television)

By Billen, Andrew | New Statesman (1996), July 14, 2003 | Go to article overview

A Rough Search for Forgiveness: Andrew Billen on Brian Sewell's Sexually Charged Series about God and Art. (Television)


Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)


On your behalf, for last week's issue, I watched Michael Wood search for Shakespeare on BBC2. It was epic television scholarship, the sort of thing, as they used to say of the monarchy, the BBC overdoes so well. But there is no reason art programmes have to be epics. A cat may look at a king and an Old Master may fit on a postcard. You don't have to be BBC2 to make art documentaries. It merely helps.

For a year or so now in the early evenings, Five has been cheekily showing cheap arts documentaries opposite the other channels' cheap soaps and makeover shows. It will send Tim Marlow into Tate Modern and, erm, that will be the programme. With The Naked Pilgrim: the road to Santiago (Tuesdays, 7.30pm), however, Five has come up with an epic-sounding idea. It has sent the venerable art critic Brian Sewell, famous for his denunciations of Britart, on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

This being Five, the camera-work reveals anything but an epic budget. Unlike Wood, who was shown in his prologue marching through four distinct seasons, Sewell explains how he couldn't afford to let his pilgrimage take up more than four weeks of last June. We see him board a cross-Channel ferry in a 20-year-old Mercedes -- his "Rosinante" -- and listen to him grumbling about the hotels he has been booked into. Yet, in its own way, Sewell's series is as rich as Wood's.

"I think the idea was to look at beautiful cathedrals, drink too much wine and say something insightful about belief and art," says Sewell. But he also wants to investigate the medieval mind, and the history lessons he delivers along the way are not negligible. Cathedrals, Sewell explains, needed customers as much as any other business. To attract visitors, you had to have a relic you could hype. If you didn't, you'd better hope that a miracle had happened close by. Failing that, you'd just have to promote the celebrities who had visited. Thus the poor cathedral at Orleans not only records that Louis XI and his queen passed through, but also preserved their heads for show in a crypt.

These insights are simple enough. Sewell, however, is not a simple man. His bizarre persona raises many more personal questions. Is that upper-class voice genuine or a put-on? His campness: is it arty or homosexual? Sewell obligingly teases us with references to his sex life. Pilgrimages are searches for forgiveness, he tells us twice. In his case, the sin that needs the most attention is lust. Driving to Paris, he reveals how he lost his virginity there at the age of 20 to a 60-year-old grandmother. …

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