After a three-year break, I found time last weekend to attend the BFI London Film Festival 2014. Thanks to a generous friend who was prepared to endure the eccentricities of the LFF online booking system, I managed to fit in four films in three days.
Watching new films in a Film Festival environment is a completely different experience from turning up at your local multiplex or even a Curzon and enduring a couple of hours in the company of the popcorn-munching, FaceBooking masses. (Who are these morons who refuse to switch off their phones for the short time required to watch a film?)
Film Festival attendees don’t have sit through up to half an hour’s worth of adverts and trailers before the film starts. Instead, there’s a live introduction from one of the Festival programmers and sometimes a cameo appearance from one of the film’s stars (see below). At the end, there’s often a Q&A session with the director. Three of the four films I saw this year offered this “bonus” feature.
In previous years I have churned out full-length film reviews for websites that didn’t pay me anything. I won’t be doing that again. Instead, in a nod to the wise creator of Paragraph Film Reviews, here are some brief reflections on what I saw at the BFI London Film Festival 2014.
The Duke of Burgundy (director Peter Strickland)
Guardian and Radio Times-reading TV viewers were fixated by the Danish political soap Borgen and its multi-lingual star, Sidse Babett Knudsen. She swept into the cinema just a few minutes before I sat down to watch Peter Strickland’s beautifully shot but bizarrely plotted erotic drama The Duke of Burgundy. (The title is a reference to a type of butterfly.)
Knudsen plays Cynthia, the cool, immaculately dressed employer who puts her younger “maid” Evelyn (Chiara D’Anna) through her paces with a mixture of contempt and boredom. From turning up late at the door of the amateur entomologist’s ivy-encrusted mansion, to sitting down without being invited and then failing to wash her employer’s silk undies properly, poor Evelyn just can’t avoid punishment.
Appearances are deceptive: their rather stilted interactions are elaborate role-playing (complete with hand-written cue cards) at the heart of a sadomasochistic relationship. Soft-focus photography, sly humour and a surprising lack of nudity make the specifics of their games seem less salacious – though I’m glad we never found out more about that much-vaunted “human toilet”.
The Duke of Burgundy is essentially a two-hander that relies on the charisma and the chemistry of its two stars to overcome the fact that both the characters and the setting of the story remain an enigma. Cynthia’s increasing physical and psychological frailties – her struggles to satisfy her younger lover’s demands – add emotional weight to what might have been a cold, stylised drama.
Viewers who entertained fantasies about seeing Prime Minister Birgitte Nyborg in silk lingerie will not be disappointed. Far more revealing is what Sidse Babett Knudsen’s affecting performance reveals about the universal fear of growing old.
Camp X-Ray (director Peter Sattler)
I have given the Twilight films wide berth, but Peter Sattler’s Guantanamo Bay-set prison drama, Camp X-Ray, shows Kristen Stewart in a whole new light. She brings a convincing mixture of steeliness and vulnerability to her role as Amy Cole, a soldier charged with babysitting detainees at the controversial facility. In her relationship with long-term inmate Ali (Peyman Moaadi), Cole begins to question the morality of this system of internment without trial.
Peter Sattler wisely concentrates on the human elements of the drama rather than railing against the shortcomings of America’s human rights record. (The opening scenes in which the orange-suited Ali is bundled into a cage, bleeding and utterly dehumanised, speak for themselves.) The later confrontations between guard and inmate that take place around Ali’s cell door are some of the most nerve-shredding I’ve seen for years.
If you’re not moved to tears of rage by the plight of the Harry Potter-loving Ali, then perhaps you should just stick to watching vapid teenage vampire flicks.
Charlie’s Country (director Rolf de Heer)
The BFI London Film Festival programme gives all the films a positive write-up, and never more so than in the case of “visionary director Rolf de Heer’s Australian-set drama. David Gulpilil won Best Actor at this year’s Cannes Film Festival for his powerful performance as Charlie, an ageing Native Australian who finds himself on the wrong side of the white man’s draconian laws in the post-“intervention” era. Broke, hungry and shorn of his weapons, Charlie takes off into the Outback to reclaim his freedom, but ends up desperately ill and then incarcerated.
As you’d expect, Charlie’s Country is primarily a showcase for the talents of the veteran Gulpilil, a star of Australian cinema since 1971’s Walkabout. It is his face and personality that dominate every scene in this gruelling and often slow-moving story. There are lighter moments here – notably Charlie’s ill-fated buffalo hunting trip and the way de Heer emphasises the colour and quantity of prison food as it’s doled out.
I can’t say that really enjoyed Charlie’s Country, but I did learn something about the discriminatory and (frankly) infantilizing measures taken by the Australian Government in 2007 against Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory.
10.000 Km (director Carlos Marques-Marcet)
I wasn’t convinced that a long-distance love story conducted mainly through Skype would make for compelling cinema, but writer/director Carlos Marques-Marcet has pulled it off. That’s largely down to his two very sexy, intelligent and appealing actors – David Verdaguer as teacher Sergi and Natalia Tena as his photographer girlfriend Alex.
After the long opening scene in their Barcelona apartment, the pair are forced apart when Alex decides to move to LA for a year for her career. Lonely, bored or just horny, the twentysomething pair soon discover the limitations of trying to share intimacies over wi-fi when you’re thousands of kilometres apart (9,661.4 to be precise).
Despite the physical confines of the plot – the characters are seen on-screen only in their respective apartments – Marques-Marcet keeps the pace brisk as we chart the elapsing days over their 12-month separation. He trusts the viewer to fill in the blanks, as when Alex shuts her screen during an online sex session or when Sergi’s one-night stand is heard showering but never glimpsed or mentioned.
Regardless of technology, a love story stands or falls on whether you care about the fate of the couple. I would happily spend another 100 minutes Skyping with this pair.
Before the 2014 BFI London Film Festival gets under way next week, I decided to indulge in some mainstream, big-budget Hollywood entertainment – David Fincher’s Gone Girl. This eagerly anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s runaway bestseller stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike as the picture-perfect Nick and Amy Dunne. When beautiful blonde Amy disappears from the couple’s home in North Carthage, Missouri on their fifth wedding anniversary, the police uncover suspicious blood spatter quicker than you can say Dexter Morgan. From then on Gone Girl is a roller-coaster ride of plot twists, culminating in that old BFI favourite: “strong, bloody violence”.
I haven’t read Gillian Flynn’s novel, but those familiar with the source material will know that it’s difficult to reveal too much about the plot of Gone Girl without plunging headlong into spoiler territory. It starts out a bit like a police procedural (Nick even cracks a joke about Law & Order), as the (not sufficiently) distraught husband comes under intense scrutiny from the cops, the locals and excoriating TV host Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle). Meanwhile, flashbacks of Amy writing in her diary fill us in on their past life as yuppie journalists in New York, and what may have proved to be a fatal attraction.
Gone Girl is a story in which two highly unreliable narrators pursue high-risk agendas that pull audience loyalties one way and then the other. Though the opening half hour is a bit slow, skeletons soon start tumbling out of closets and something nasty (or at least very unwelcome) turns up in the woodshed, as the protagonists revel in media manipulation, role-playing and illicit sex.
With her patrician beauty, English rose Rosamund Pike might seem like more obvious casting for genteel period drama like Downton Abbey than the rigours of a David Fincher movie. (Remember what happened to Gwyneth Paltrow in Se7en?). But despite the occasional wobble in her accent, she is a revelation here as the missing trust-funder with a penchant for picking the wrong guys. Chomping hamburgers on the fly and splashing about in buckets of blood, Pike throws herself into the extremes of “Amazing” Amy’s jaw-dropping antics with gusto.
Some people don’t like Ben Affleck (maybe it’s the Oscar wins, his politics or the fact that he’s really an Affleck-Boldt). For me he’s the natural successor to Jeff Bridges in Jagged Edge, as the handsome, lazy and morally reprehensible bar-owner Nick Dunne. Neil Patrick Harris and Tyler Perry are also highly effective as, respectively, Amy’s creepily devoted ex-suitor and Nick’s hot-shot attorney.
The problem is that while director David Fincher seems tailor-made for this kind of high-concept thriller, I didn’t find Gone Girl nearly as much fun as some of the critics who’ve gone overboard with their praise this week.
Of course it’s not essential that any of the main characters are likeable or sympathetic – they’re certainly not in this film. I didn’t bring art-house level expectations of a profound meditation on modern relationships or media excesses to what is, after all, just a pot-boiler. But given my unfamiliarity with the material I did expect to be much more shaken, stirred, excited and even horrified by this ugly tale of a thoroughly toxic relationship.
Perhaps the problem is that at 145 minutes long Gone Girl continues the 21st-century trend for films that outstay their welcome by a good 20 minutes. I also found that the content and the presentation of Amy’s diary entries made for a boring, bland introduction to the character, though perhaps that was deliberate.
Gone Girl will be best enjoyed with your blood-alcohol level raised and your expectations lowered. Despite the hype, this is not a modern masterpiece.
The most glaring absence from The Armstrong Lie is the keen intellect and infallible bullshit detector of author, journalist and Teflon-coated anti-Lance crusader, David Walsh.
In the week that the Tour de France brought a triumphant splash of yellow to Britain’s roads, the BBC and Channel 4 served up two films illustrating the darker side of cycling’s recent history.
The Armstrong Lie (Channel 4) and BBC Four’s Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing offered a fascinating compare and contrast experience for fans of movies, sport and conspiracies. As I’d recently read two books about the Lance Armstrong doping controversy (Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle’s The Secret Race and David Walsh’s Seven Deadly Sins: My Pursuit of Lance Armstrong), I didn’t need much persuasion to spend four hours mainlining Lance.
The Armstrong Lie was made by Alex Gibney (Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God and Taxi to the Dark Side), while Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing was directed by Alex Holmes, writer/director of the 2004 miniseries House of Saddam. Both films recount how cancer survivor Lance Armstrong’s record seven Tour de France victories (1999-2005) were eventually revealed to be the work not of some two-wheeled messiah but of a power-crazed charlatan, boosted by EPO and blood transfusions. But though they often employ the same archive footage and interview the same people, the results feel very different.
Gibney’s film is the more “authored” piece, in which his own relationship with the Lance Armstrong Story takes centre stage. Gibney set out to make a movie about Lance’s comeback to cycling and his decision to compete in the 2009 Tour de France, riding for Astana. That project was derailed in the wake of Floyd Landis’s revelations about what really went on inside that all-conquering US Postal Service team. In October 2012 an investigation by the US Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) finally led to Lance being stripped of his yellow jerseys and banned for life.
When Gibney returned to the project, his main question was why Lance ever risked coming back to the sport and exposing what had been a remarkably effective cover-up of doping activities. Was he really riding “clean” in that comeback Tour? Gibney cuts between archive footage, material shot in 2009 and new interviews with his subject, to bring the story up to date. We drop in on Lance at home with the doping inspectors and see clips from his tête-à-tête with an unforgiving Oprah Winfrey in January 2013. A supposedly chastened Lance tells Gibney, “I didn’t live a lot of lies but I lived one big one”, and speculates on whether his cycling feats will remain expunged from the record books in decades to come.
The price of Gibney’s access to his subject is that The Armstrong Lie feels like a wholly undeserved opportunity for Lance have the final word — yet again. There is some eye-opening behind-the-scenes footage from the 2009 Tour de France, in which team director Johan Bruyneel fails to control Lance’s team-mate (and bitter rival) Alberto Contador. But can we expect any real insights or revelations when Armstrong himself keeps popping up every five minutes to offer his best impression of sincerity and contrition?
For me, Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing is the far superior documentary because it allows Lance’s victims – and there are many – to have their say. The difference between the two films is best summed up with an incident from a 2009 press conference, in which Lance attacks Irish journalist and ex-cyclist Paul Kimmage for describing him as the “cancer” of the sport. “You’re not worth the chair that you’re sitting on,” he self-righteously declares, while more or less claiming to be the man who’s single-handedly ridding the world of that terrible disease. (It’s that messiah complex again.)
Gibney’s film then cuts to the grinning face of Lance’s former team-mate, George Hincapie, who was at that press conference and now seems to regard the hypocrisy as a bit of joke; Storyville shows us Kimmage’s angry riposte at the time. It’s significant because it emphasises that the BBC film is less concerned with myth-making and more focused on the voices of dissent that dogged this American “hero” throughout his glory years.
Lance’s former team-mate Frankie Andreu and his fearless and incorruptible wife Betsy (think Deputy Solverson from Fargo) are interviewed at length in both films. Frankie’s career was damaged and both suffered intimidation as a result of their refusal to adhere to the Armstrong “Omerta”. But in the Alex Holmes film we also hear from others who were traduced and thrown under the (team) bus, including former soigneur Emma O’Reilly, Tour de France winner Greg LeMond and the USADA’s Travis Tygart, who admits he received threats to his life. Tyler Hamilton gives us the lowdown on those blood transfusions, providing graphic detail that’s absent from the Gibney film.
The most glaring absence from The Armstrong Lie is the keen intellect and infallible bullshit detector of author, journalist and Teflon-coated anti-Lance crusader, David Walsh. In Storyville: Lance Armstrong: Stop at Nothing he highlights the stupidity of Armstrong not allowing the “ticking bomb” that was Floyd Landis back into his team, following Floyd’s two-year ban for doping in 2006. That decision pushed Landis towards his fateful decision to blow the whistle on Lance.
Walsh also points out that Lance’s demand that his accusers produce “extraordinary proof” of his doping reflected an unwavering belief that “different rules apply to the gods”.
As for why Lance Armstrong came back to the sport, Walsh calls it “the oldest theme in Hollywood”, comparing the cyclist’s high-octane career to that of a master jewel thief or an assassin, “They do their job brilliantly . . . someone says just one more job . . . they can’t resist”.
It’s not often I find myself in agreement with Roger Federer, but Wimbledon’s “all-white” rule is cretinous. Of course The Federator was far to polite to actually use that word, but he has spoken out against the All England Club’s decision to eliminate as much colour as possible from the players’ attire.
In recent years competitors have got away with jazzing up their pristine white attire with the odd splash of colour. So tennis queen Serena Williams was able to don a regal purple headband or highlight her posterior with an eye-catching pair of red shorts. Sadly, those hot pants failed to make the same impact as Venus’s infamous flesh-coloured drawers in 2010.
In 2013 Roger Federer was ticked off for taking to the court in a pair of Nikes with day-glo orange soles. They weren’t nearly as offensive to the eye as veteran Radek Stepanek’s banned red and blue footwear from 2012, but still unacceptable to those All England killjoys.
A few years ago I remember commentator Pat Cash saying he would eat his hat if Tim Henman managed to win Wimbledon. Given “Tiger” Tim’s unerring ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, I thought Cashie was on pretty safe ground with that boast. But the straight-talking Aussie did come unstuck with his footwear this year during a veterans’ event, after failing to observe Point 8 of Wimbledon’s revised Clothing and Equipment guidelines “Shoes must be almost entirely white, including the soles.”
In a tradition that stretches back to Gussie Moran’s lace-trimmed knickers in the 1940s, there’s nothing the press loves more during Wimbledon fortnight than an opportunity to write about ladies’ underwear. It’s so much more rewarding (and photogenic) than speculating about Andy Murray’s latest cursing outburst.
So editors must have been cheering Wimbledon’s decision to make the ladies and their “unmentionables” even more high visibility this year. If anything is going to show up through that perspiration-soaked dress (or shirt) it “must also be completely white”.
Caroline Wozniacki was able to see right through the All England Club’s underwear fixation, declaring it “creepy”. But ceremonially setting fire to your (non-white) bra, as those pioneers of women’s tennis might have done in the early 70s, is not an option these days. Wimbledon decrees that “common standards of decency are required at all times”.
As you may have detected, I am a tennis fan but I am not an admirer of strict dress codes – either in sport or in any other walk of life. I do not respect institutions who cling on to their precious, and in this case utterly pointless, traditions at the expense of flexibility or common sense.
Has anyone ever felt tempted to walk off Centre Court because a player was wearing red knickers or had an excessive amount of colour trim on their shirt? I’d be much more irritated by the grunting, shrieking and excessive towelling-off that punctuates so many matches these days.
Many of the colour combinations at this year’s French Open ranged from the unflattering (Roger Federer’s grey top with red sleeves) to the downright hideous (Tomas Berdych’s floral ensemble). But at least it was easy to distinguish one badly dressed player from another.
Of course Wimbledon’s “all white” rule is just a dress code. For much of the 20th century a sign that said “Whites Only” had very different connotations if you lived in the US or in apartheid-era South Africa. Wimbledon isn’t being racist – it’s just being annoyingly petty, pointlessly traditional and utterly British. So let’s tear up the rule book and have more stripes, more colour and more fun.
As the post-mortem on the BBC’s feeble W1A continues, a genuinely hilarious workplace comedy arrived on our screens last night. I’m talking about BBC2’s Under Offer, Estate Agents on the Job, a six-part documentary series that promises to “lift the lid on the UK’s crazy property market”.
I’m not a fan of reality TV and I have been contemptuous about TV property shows and estate agents on this blog, but this hour-long programme was even more wickedly enjoyable than the downfall of Culture Secretary Maria Miller. With narration by Derek Jacobi and jaunty incidental music that could have come straight out of The Apprentice, this first instalment zig-zagged between London, Exeter, Birmingham and County Durham, to follow “the highs and lows of the people who broker the biggest purchases most of us will ever make”.
In the thriving property market of Exeter we met the ebullient 30-year-old Lewis Rossiter, manager of Bradleys estate agents, and about to become a father for the third time. Lewis wears those naff coloured shirts with white collars that Terry Wogan made famous in the 80s. He also turns out to have a comedic flair that his namesake Leonard Rossiter would have admired. That’s just as well, given that he has just 10 weeks to flog a house in Willeys Avenue – otherwise glamorous, blonde mother-of-two Sam will lose her deposit on the featureless Lego house she’s set her heart on.
Meanwhile, in County Durham Lynne Blaney is breakfasting on Froot Loops and sighing over the fact that around one-third of her housing stock comes from repossessed homes. This is truly “heart-rendering” [sic], as is her failure to sell a four-bedroom detached house called The Chapelry, whose owner has foolishly fitted it out with an excess of Brazilian mahogany. Given that swathes of the North of England are Poundland territory in terms of property prices, Lynne has more chance of turning her Fruit Loops into 24-carat gold than finding a new owner for this £249,000 white elephant.
The Birmingham scenes with straight-talking Dave Simms were less engaging, though I had to agree with his withering assessment of property shows fronted by Sarah Beeny and Kirstie Allsopp. While Dave’s bungalow sale storyline had human interest (an elderly couple who were desperate to downsize), I suspect most viewers were more interested in smooth-talking veteran Gary Hersham, from Mayfair-based Beauchamp Estates.
Gary’s been wheeling and dealing among London’s super-rich since the late 70s. Operating solely in the Capital’s smarter postcodes – W1, SW1, SW3 – his impressive portfolio ranges from a paltry £2 million (that’s broom-cupboard territory) to £120 million mansions for the uber-wealthy.
Gary earns more from a single mega-bucks deal than poor Lynne will see in her lifetime and he clearly knows his target market: “The super-rich look for instant gratification.” But even at this rarefied end of the property market, someone still has to do the unglamorous job of humping boxes of leaflets around. That’s where Ernesto comes in handy.
The star of Under Offer, Estate Agents on the Job turns out not to be cheeky chappie Lewis, but the podgy, sweaty and slightly camp Spanish gentleman who works for Gary. Judging by the carefully staged scenes we saw, their relationship is like a retread of Fawlty Towers, with Gary in the Basil role (“Bleedin’ Spanish twerp!”) and Ernesto as a supersized version of the cowering Manuel.
“My relationship – it’s a leetle beet of love/hate,” confides Ernesto. After watching this episode I’m starting to feel the same way about estate agents.
In a makeshift tent somewhere in France, three rookie nurses are set the exacting task of making up a hospital bed in just two minutes under the steely gaze of Matron. They’re cheered on by a motley band of supporters. Is this “The Great British Bed Off”, a new spin on the BBC’s hugely popular The Great British Bake Off? No, it was episode one of The Crimson Field, BBC1’s much-hyped First World War drama about VAD nurses.
In 1915 three young ladies arrive at “Hospital 25″, somewhere in northern France, to begin their baptism of fire at the hands of formidable Matron Grace Carter (Hermione Norris) and her sidekick Sister Margaret Quayle (Kerry Fox). A clumsy expositional scene reveals that Grace has recently (and unexpectedly) won promotion over Margaret, who brushes off the snub with a none-too-convincing “I couldn’t be more proud” speech. Fox, who’s been turned into a “Silver Fox” for this role, later enjoys a couple of moments of villainy, when she steals a cake and helps send a traumatised soldier back to the Front.
The Hour’s Oona Chaplin plays Kitty Trevelyan, the most insubordinate – and therefore most appealing – of the new arrivals. We know she has a romantic past because she’s first glimpsed tossing a ring off the prow of the Boulogne-bound ship, in a scene that might have come straight out of Titanic. With her smoking, blaspheming and answering back to Matron, Kitty was courting trouble even before she almost got herself killed by a distressed and dying patient.
Marianne Oldham’s priggish Rosalie Berwick – “The rules are there for a reason” – tries to lay down the law to the defiant Kitty and gets a tongue-lashing for her trouble. Dim-witted Flora Marshall (Alice St. Clair) provides most of the lighter moments in this episode, mainly thanks to her faltering attempts to deal with a large heap of bloodied bandages containing some putrefying body parts.
A soldier instructs floundering Flora to toss the severed digits (they look a bit like raw chipolatas) into something that resembles an outdoor pizza oven. “They’re rotten – neither use nor ornament,” he explains, thereby summing up the likely contribution of VAD nurses to the war effort.
The brilliant Blackadder Goes Forth showed how black humour can be an effective way to convey the horrors of mechanised slaughter. But I imagine the producers of The Crimson Field were also aiming to provoke sorrow at this endless parade of broken bodies and souls, and anger at the apparent callousness of some senior officers. As the head of the hospital, Lt-Col Roland Brett, Downton Abbey’s Kevin Doyle has a couple of good scenes in which he tries (and fails) to engineer a humane exit for a psychologically broken soldier.
Until the belated arrival of Suranne Jones as the motorcycle-riding civilian nurse Joan Livesey, the main reason to keep watching The Crimson Field was Hermione Norris. Admittedly, Matron Carter was saddled with a very predictable storyline here, as she alternated between tender concern for her moribund patients and barely disguised contempt for her new charges.
You can stick her in a WWI nurse’s outfit in a field in France (it’s actually Wiltshire), but Hermione Norris will always be Ros Myers, the ass-kicking, terrorist-chasing, leather-jacketed heroine of spy drama Spooks. Watching her castigate the hapless Flora for wearing scent (“just rosewater”) I found myself wondering how the take-no-prisoners Ros would have dealt with these simpering females.
My best guess is that Ros would have dunked Flora’s empty head in that bowl of water, washed out the impudent Kitty’s mouth with the bar of soap and then told Rosalie to stop being such a sycophant.
On 5 March 1914, The London Group held its inaugural exhibition at the Goupil Gallery, 5 Regent Street, London. You probably haven’t heard of the Goupil, which shifted between several central London locations before it was flattened by a German bomb in 1941. Despite a nomadic existence, The London Group has proved much more durable: it survived the Second World War, decades of changing tastes in the art world and a verbal carpet bombing by bilious art critic Brian Sewell. Dr Richard Cork, Sewell’s predecessor at the London Evening Standard, was much more complimentary when he spoke at a reception at Tate Britain on the 100th anniversary of that first exhibition.
An invitation to an after-hours event at a major London gallery is always exciting. With fewer people around it’s easier to absorb the impact of Caruso St John’s high-profile £45 million makeover of Tate Britain. Entering through the reopened “front door” on the Millbank side, I descended via the stunning new spiral staircase beneath the rotunda, to the pristine white surroundings of the cavern-like Djanogly café, where the reception was held.
Current members, their partners and invited guests heard Richard Cork reflect on The London Group’s early years. It was an era in which the art world was dominated by “isms” (Fauvism, Cubism, Vorticism), and the challenge of conveying wholesale slaughter on the battlefields was taken up by many painters and sculptors. They included David Bomberg, who was part of the Group’s first exhibition and whose painting, In The Hold, was a key work in last year’s A Crisis of Brilliance exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.
As Cork touched on some of the controversies and described the brutal evolution of Jacob Epstein’s Rock Drill sculpture, I thought about a more recent attempt at emasculation. Brian Sewell’s withering assessment of the exhibition, Uproar! The First 50 Years of The London Group 1913-1963, included the assertion that the Group has been in “irreversible decline” since the end of the Second World War and “ought long ago to have been put down”. Strong stuff. I might be reading too much into the rantings of a grumpy old man, but it sounded as though Brian thought The London Group should have perished in a Luftwaffe bombing raid.
I’m not a professional artist or art critic; I was flattered to be invited to the Tate reception as a result of a blog I wrote last year. Brian Sewell is much better qualified than I am to compare the merit and the impact of The London Group’s second half century with its early years at the cutting edge of the art scene. The first London Group show featured more than 100 works by artists including Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg and CRW Nevinson. It’s probably too early to say whether any of the current members will be as influential – though Dame Paula Rego’s international reputation precedes her.
But Sewell’s comment that The London Group in its later years “has meant very little to working artists and nothing at all to the wider public” is breathtakingly arrogant and ill-informed. Did he bother to interview any current members before reaching this conclusion? Speaking to them last night and at previous exhibitions, I know that what Sewell dismisses as a “pathetic” Collective is an integral part of their professional lives.
Fortunately, Brenda Emmanus took a more measured approach in this week’s BBC London piece about the The London Group On London exhibition, which continues at the Cello Factory until 12 March. Among the interviewees was 91-year-old Albert Irvin RA, a member since 1965, whose paintings and prints are most often characterised as “exuberant”. (That’s not a description that could ever be applied to Brian Sewell.)
Longevity is not always a reliable guide to the value of work, organisations or individuals. (A certain veteran art critic should have been put out to pasture some years ago.) But enduring links to a pivotal era in 20th-century British art are worth celebrating. Tate Britain holds a fascinating collection of London Group documents, catalogues and photos within its huge (entirely dust-free!) archives.
In the words of its current President, Susan Haire, “The London Group is thriving and we expect to be around for the next 100 years.”