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TV review: Scandal and Beauty: Mark Gatiss on Aubrey Beardsley, The Nest, and Trigonometry

09 April 2020

BBC/Academy 7/Matthew Thomas

Mark Gatiss in the Chapelle St Roche in Menton, France Scandal and Beauty, in Mark Gatiss on Aubrey Beardsley (BBC4, Monday of last week)

Mark Gatiss in the Chapelle St Roche in Menton, France Scandal and Beauty, in Mark Gatiss on Aubrey Beardsley (BBC4, Monday of last week)

WE BEGAN in the Annunciation, Brighton, and ended in a chapel in Menton. The subject of Scandal and Beauty: Mark Gatiss on Aubrey Beardsley (BBC4, Monday of last week) would have relished the para­dox of the stripped-down Roman Catholic Chapel in the French Riviera appearing infinitely more Prot­estant than the Anglo-Catholic splendour (still gloriously flourish­ing) of the Annunciation, whose pre-Raphaelite windows Gatiss presented as exciting the artist’s imagination. That, and the fact that the parish priest, Fr Chapman, shared his fatal prognosis of TB.

This hovering death sentence im­­pelled Beardsley into an extra­ordinary concentration of creation and achievement — he died at the age of 25 — and contributed to the feverish, morbid nature of so much of his art. Gatiss explored Beardsley’s influences (Burne-Jones, Japanese prints, French posters), and how cen­­tral was his contribution to fin-de-siècle culture through Morte d’Arthur, The Studio, and The Yellow Book.

But he never really dug deep into why this mild-mannered, outwardly respectable young man, living with his sister and mother, produced images quite so obscene, sinister, and phantasmagoric, or why he ruth­lessly excised all trace of kindli­ness. I’m sorry to say that we heard more than necessary about Gatiss himself and his infatuation with the artist’s work. For me, it had the hint of a naughty boy revealing a guilty pleasure, an undermining note of self-indulgence.

The Nest, BBC1’s Sunday-night thriller, has at its heart a 21st-­century situation that would have piqued Beardsley’s imagination (he recurrently depicted foetuses and un­natural birth).

An 18-year-old, Kaya, is acting as surrogate for wealthy Dan and Emily, who cannot carry a preg­nancy to term. But who is she? Emily’s desperation for a child
(it’s her last frozen egg) is so all-consuming that she refuses to pursue the question: slowly, we dis­cover that, in her childhood, Kaya com­mitted a notorious murder. She does sometimes erupt in violent temper, but also reveals touching glimpses of vulnerability and strug­gle. Is she redeemed, genuinely trans­­formed? Or is it all a cynical manipulation, a heartless ploy to win the lifestyle that she craves?

The plot is over-wrought, but the characters are drawn with real depth and complexity, the moral am­­biguities are explored, and the setting of Glasgow’s struggle for post-industrial regeneration (do the lochs’ stupendous beauty hide the murkiest depths?) are exceptionally well drawn.

A rather more obvious threesome animates BBC2’s Trigonometry (Sundays). Kieran, a paramedic, and Gemma, a café owner, take a lodger, Ramona (an Olympic swimmer re­­cover­ing from a catastrophic acci­d­ent), to make ends meet. To their horror, they mutually fall in love (Gemma is bisexual) — passions declared only on the eve of Ray and Gemma’s nuptials: the wedding-night bed contains three rather than the usual two bodies. It is a con­vincing depiction of the inclusive chaotic realities — raw, edgy, and funny — of London life (not mine, I hasten to add).

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