Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Make it Easel on Yourself...

Ah, deep joy! My all-time favourite televison programme based on the (s)exploits of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood returns to our screens tonight. Is it really a week since the last episode of Desperate Romantics?

Things certainly weren't like that when I was at Art School, I can tell you! Just to clarify, I was only at Art School for about 3 months - turns out I was allergic to egg-based tempera. Haven't been able to keep down the starters in a Thai restaurant since. Tragic really. Still, I'm not complaining - you've seen one ripe and buxom life model in the buff, you've seen 'em all, haven't you? In any case, there's no real money in the art game unless you're prepared to swallow your naturalist principles and go the conceptual route; you know, all that "I think, therefore Yoko Ono is" caper. Always more of a figurative, neo-romanticist, pre-vorticist, post-symbolist man meself. No, you'll not catch me mithering or lashing out at the nearest Young British Artist and trying to shove a canape sideways up Tracey Emin's tentflaps. I'm not bitter...

No, it was nothing like the idealised world of the PRB when I was at the Academy. Instead of being seduced by the gorgeous, Italianate wife of England's finest art critic and connoiseur of the smutty sketch (Ruskin), we shivered away with only a one bar fire for warmth in a damp and chilly garret on the top floor of a tumbledown, soviet-style municipal building. There was no security whatsoever, anyone could just walk in off the street, so you'd have some scruffy, dishevelled looking little dwarf with a vomit flecked beard come up behind your easel, can of Tennents Super Strength Lager in hand, tutting and calling your life drawing "horrible" before falling over in a giggling, drunken heap and smashing the etch-a-sketch kit belonging to the priggish girl in the wraparound tartan skirt sat next to you. Oh, I imagine the security's improved a lot since then. They're probably better at keeping the lecturers out nowadays.

Anyway, back to D.R. What can you say about it? I tried to make some notes during last week's show in the hope of posting up a satirical little piece about it here, but I gave up after about four minutes. It's so preposterous to begin with that the show simply defies any further parody or ridicule. In that respect, it's actually quite a remarkable achievement. You can just imagine the pitch, can't you? "Erm, blah blah blah exciting new televisual interface...rhubarb rhubarb rhubarb post-historico-validity ....formidable youth demographic......erm...here, I know, here's a good one - just imagine a cross between Desperate Housewives and erm...something to do with romantics?" But no matter how ludicrous the precept, once commissioned, they have to give it a go I guess and the programme makers are only to be congratulated on the astonishing verisimilitude of the period feel they've achieved and the lovingly researched authenticity of the dialogue:

Dante "Dave" Gabriel Rosetti [throwing his mobile phone away with gay abandon...]: Lizzy, I want to *knob* you...

Elizabeth Siddel: Phwoar!! Not 'arf!!

You half expect to hear lines like, "...we the Brotherhood vow to revitalise the stagnant pool of English art with our rejection of Victorian morality and heightened depictions of the natural world, innit?" No, sorry, that *was* one of the actual lines from the programme - you see, it really is impossible to spoof. Then there's the sight of Rafe "Yes, I do bear an uncanny resemblance to my father don't I, only I'm obviously much posher and more better lookinger than what he is - and, no, I don't have a *clue* how you spell my first name either" Spall, rogering senseless the young actress who will henceforth get all the work that Billie Piper turns down, up against a conveniently situated upright pianoforte.

But at least D.R. is instructive in one very important way. It demonstrates, if nothing else, the ridiculous lengths that programme makers need to go to in order to get any kind of arts-based subject matter onto the schedule. And those lengths really are desperate if D.R. is anything to go by. I was surprised by the PRB when I did my degree. I had no idea they were as passionate and angry in their critique of Victorian industrial capitalism. They were a genuine affront to the artistic establishment of their day - and that's always a good thing. They were a genuinely puzzling phenomenon; a disruption. You don't really get a sense of that in D.R. And, did I blink and miss her perhaps, but where the feck is Christina?? Now *she* knew how to paint!!

It's disappointing that the only way that large numbers of viewers are going to find out about the Pre-Raphaelites is by way of this ill-conceived comedy-drama series; one that, whether intentionally or not, serves only to make these interesting and subversive artists look quite ridiculous. Not all arts programming needs to be as epic or heavyweight as The Ascent of Man or Civilisation. But there is such a thing as making things *too* easy. And really, if the Beeb thinks that the only way of interesting the Great Unwashed in the arts is to raunch it up, then for heaven's sake, can't they just put on some decent porn? Or bring back the New Avengers?



  1. I gave it a miss! Sounds like it would make a good Carry On film though.

  2. Thank you Morton. It sounds like those Pre-Raphaelites had talent.

  3. Scarlet, Scarlet, Scarlet....never was a truer word spake (...spoketh? Speaketh???...well, whatever - a big thumbs up to what you just said!)

    Dickster - yep, and you know what they say - talent borrows; genius *steals*