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No need for ghouls

31 October 2014


HOW patronising that TV schedulers consider that it is necessary to invoke the transatlantic cult of Hallowe'en to draw viewers to programmes on quite adequately fascinating topics; and how boring that two otherwise excellent documentaries were cheapened by distinguished directors' and presenters' feeling obliged to spice up their exposition with ghoulery.

Dan Cruickshank and the Family That Built Gothic Britain  (BBC4, Tuesday of last week) camped up the story of the Gilbert Scott dynasty of architects. It is always a mistake to watch something about which you know a little; so, no doubt as a student of the Gothic Revival since my earliest youth, and incumbent of one of Sir George's greatest late churches, my view is more jaundiced than most.

I would have made more of Sir George's apprenticeship with Pugin; and why Scott managed to rise above all the other Gothics in terms of the stupendous breadth of his practice; and Cruickshank's chugging up and down on heritage steam railways would have made more sense if he had underlined Scott's ability to take a train into the depths of the country in the morning, measure up yet another crumbling church during the day, and, on the train home, draw up complete plans for its restoration.

The paradox of the Industrial Revolution's enabling the return to supposedly medieval sensibilities is more significant than we heard. The tragedy of the Gilbert Scotts was the death of the son, who perished (so it is said) mad, alcoholic, and Roman Catholic, choosing to die in his father's stupendous St Pancras Hotel.

More camping up in The Art of Gothic  (BBC4, Mondays), where Andrew Graham-Dixon considers the British-led movement that inspired the look of the places where you and I spend a great deal of our lives: the revival of medieval architecture in which Scott was to play so great a part.

The series began by focusing on the fascinating rebarbative frisson of, at the height of Whiggish Palladian classicism, Horace Walpole's producing the first Gothic novel and, in Strawberry Hill, the first Gothic Revival building.

"Frisson" seems to me about right. The urge to shock, excite, and disturb was central to the concept, by means of the horrid things found abroad: assaulted maidens, ruined castles, wicked monks - all fostered by Roman Catholicism. Of course, Walpole was himself RC, and the denominational friction was extremely important: the playing with supposed RC phenomena was the first stirring of Emancipation.

Blaming the RCs is central to ITV's new period drama The Great Fire  (Thursdays): a considerable embroidery on Pepys's diary's account of the conflagration that swept away medieval London; and Pepys himself was at the heart of the action. So far, the RCs appear to be the good guys, James, Duke of York, having far more concern for the poor than his pleasure-loving brother Charles II.

Charles Dance plays a beastly spymaster, torturing his way through the city, determined to uncover (or if necessary fake) a plot that will pander to popular anti-papist prejudice. It is not serious historico-drama, but it has excellent acting. And terrific costumes.

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