TV review: Stanley and his Daughters; The story of the Royal Collection; and Nigel Slater’s Middle East

16 February 2018

BBC/Royal Collection Trust/Chris Vile

Presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon (left) with the Prince of Wales in Art, Passion and Power: The story of the Royal Collection

Presenter Andrew Graham-Dixon (left) with the Prince of Wales in Art, Passion and Power: The story of the Royal Collection

IT WAS, liturgically speaking, jumping the gun, but it is good to be told about somebody whose life was built around the resurrection. Stanley and His Daughters (BBC4, Sunday of last week) was a remarkable ac­­count of Unity and Shirin Spencer, and their father, the artist Stanley Spencer.

His Christian faith was uncon­­ventional but central to his life’s work. What it did not do was stop him acting badly. The great fact of the sisters’ shared biography was his obsession with Patricia Preece, which led him to abandon his first wife, Hilda, and their two girls.

So bad was the situation that one daughter was sent away to live with another family, and lost all contact; this film gave us privileged access to, in great old age, the sisters’ final plans to share a home together. The air was heavy with ancient wrongs and hurts, still not worked through, but there was more than that. Despite the irritations and quar­rels, both women displayed some­thing luminous: insights that showed us how much of their father lived in them. There was a profound sim­plicity in both of them: an echo of a great artist. Again and again, we were confronted with the challenge: does genius excuse great selfishness, or are they two sides of the same coin?

I was surprised by the faith-related resonances of Art, Passion and Power: The story of the Royal Collection (BBC4, Tuesdays). Andrew Graham-Dixon was allowed four whole episodes and a year’s research to explore the one million-plus works scattered around the Queen’s pa­­­laces, castles, and lodges. He traced not just successive monarchs’ per­sonalities, and interest — or lack of it — in art, but also how royal taste and patronage shaped national culture, politics, and religion.

The Reformation left a vacuum in art, but Henry VIII and Elizabeth I found that their image supplied well enough the missing objects of devotion. Charles I’s appetite for great works of the European Ba­­roque proved how far he was from his subjects’ Protestant ideals; George IV’s enthusiasm for the arts of France demonstrated how much he hankered after absolute mon­archy on a Catholic model rather than a mercantile pragmatism.

There was more national creati­v­ity in Nigel Slater’s Middle East (BBC2, Fridays). Last week, he ex­­­plored Turkey, and was constantly surprised by discovering cu­­isines that he had never heard of.

The basic pattern is for him to stay in a traditional house in some region or other, renowned for its food; watch; share in its preparation; and then later give us an idea of how we might attempt the dish. But he also relates the table to local culture, farming, and fishing. Always there is a melancholy subtext, as indus­trialisation takes over the old labour-intensive traditions. This might be the last chance to see the authentic marriage of people’s lives, work, and food.

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