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Question of guilt

30 September 2016

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PAUL FINCHLEY is not innocent. We realise, early on, that, although apparently a happily married family man, he indulged, during the sexually permissive decades of his fame, in the magnetism generated by his fame as a popular comedian by frequently taking advantage of young women, adoring fans. His computer and mobile phone contain pornographic material — some of it violent.

All this is true, but Channel 4’s new drama National Treasure (Tuesdays) asks more complex questions: is he likely to be guilty of the accusation of rape? Are the police trying to make up for previous abject failures? Is the media justified in hounding him? Is it right that the accusation should be in the public domain at this stage?

In last week’s opening episode, almost too many layers of complexity were revealed: the religious wife who knew about the sex but remained loyal; the drug-addict daughter whose dream hints at undercurrents of abuse; the TV company that, despite all protestations of believing in his innocence, drops him like a hot potato.

The way our sympathy veered towards and away from him was a tribute, above all, to Robbie Coltrane’s remarkable performance as Finchley. The one accusation has caused seven others to be made. Are they genuine? So far, we have seen none of the accusers: we cannot sense the extent to which their lives have been ruined by these events, or even if we are inclined to believe them. We are, of course, all guilty: perhaps the big question is guilty of exactly what, and what punishment is appropriate?

BBC4 confronted the scandal of modern art in three programmes last week. In Who’s Afraid of Conceptual Art? (Monday), the art historian James Fox led us on a personal journey. Highly sceptical at the outset, he was gradually won over. His initial purchase of one of Martin Creed’s crumpled-up sheets of white A4 paper (£180) confirmed all his worst impressions; but meeting the charming and humorously self-deprecating artist caused a re-evaluation.

Actually, it was not quite as simple a thing to make as we might assume, and the closer it was looked at the more beautiful it appeared, and more and more ideas began to fill his imagination, clustered around it. It was still witty and wry, mirroring the deliberate humour of many of the artists’ intentions, in contrast to the pompous solemnity of the curatorial art world.

The difficulty the gallery-going public has in finding art funny lay at the heart of Vic Reeves’s Gaga for Dada: The original art rebels (Wednesday), his own anarchic comedy finding its inspiration in the absurdist movement launched a century ago in the middle of the horror of the First World War, a mirror to the tragic absurdity of war.

And serious outrage was chronicled in Bricks! (Tuesday), recounting, 40 years on, the furore over the Tate’s purchase of Equivalent VIII, Carl Andre’s 120 industrial firebricks. The thoughtful delight expressed by today’s public contrasted with the expostulations of the time. So, have we grown up and allowed our eyes to open, or have we possibly become used to the Emperor’s new clothes?

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