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TV review: Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens, and Margate, Turner and the Prize

06 December 2019

BBC/Lone Star Productions

Seamus and Marie Heaney

Seamus and Marie Heaney

THESE are our words. Central to the marvellous Seamus Heaney and the Music of What Happens (BBC2, Saturday) was his poems, read for us by those for whom, or about whose lives, they were written: his brothers, his children, poet colleagues, and, most moving of all, his wife reading the love poems — her love poems.

Heaney’s work is intensely centred, focused on actual places, actual moments; so the accuracy of his depiction, his account, can, as it were, be checked out by others also present — “Yes! It was exactly like that” — although only a great poet enables us to see for the first time what it is really like, and reveals the deeper meaning.

However much he might have moved away from his family’s all-encompassing Roman Catholicism, the poetry is shot through with Christian theology, liturgy, and practice: this is, I would say, a work of incarnation, of God present in the daily toil of farming, in family life and loves, even in the despairing horror of the Troubles.

Heaney’s simplicity of expression, which led us into deeper, unexpected profundity, was matched by visual imagery: archive film of peat-cutting, of his violent times, and of the poet, who presented many TV programmes himself. This was an emotionally intense, tender celebration.

Art and a specific place similarly energised Margate, Turner and the Prize (BBC2, last Friday). The renowned new Turner Gallery is showing the four artists shortlisted for this year’s prize, and will host the revelation of the winner. But this film was less a competition preview than an inquiry into the relationship between the town and its cultural icon.

How much is high art transforming what had become known as, for its pervading rundown poverty, the “last resort”? Local opinions were decidedly mixed. For many, the influx of visitors and tourists, the colonising by arty hipsters, and the subsequent raising of the standard of coffee available was making their home town decidedly more agreeable. For others, the desperately needed smartening-up seemed to care only about outsiders, raising rents and prices far beyond native grasp.

My own jaundiced view is that, considering most of the art on display, the best thing about the Turner Contemporary (it’s just down the road), like Tate Modern, is the splendid view from its windows.

BBC4 introduced us to a medium employed by many of the prize shortlist in Kill Your TV: Jim Moir’s weird world of video art (Sunday of last week). As Jim Moir generally presents himself as the comic Vic Reeves — he has just started a new series of Vic and Bob’s Big Night Out, on BBC4, Wednesdays, which maintains its previous level of hysterical baffling lunacy — this found the art less solemn inspiration than essentially funny. Perhaps that is where its true profundity lies.

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