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