Culture vulture

U is for utopian: Ladybird by design

ladybird abc postcard

Ladybird by Design has landed at the House of Illustration, near King’s Cross station in London. This scaled-down version of the exhibition from earlier this year at the De La Warr Pavilion, celebrates the centenary of the educational imprint that gave us everything from Peter and Jane (aka the Key Words Reading Scheme), to books on science, history, fairy tales and the Bible.

As an atheist, I have no hesitation in labelling the Bible as the ultimate “Big Book of Fairy Tales”, but there’s no place for irreverent observations like that in the wonderfully wholesome World of Ladybird. This exhibition focuses on the imprint’s golden age – from 1958 to the early 70s – the mid-century period in which I grew up and began to discover the world through the brilliance of Ladybird illustrators like Robert Ayton, John Berry and Charles Tunnicliffe.

Though you won’t find the word “icon” in the meticulously rendered illustrations of the Ladybird abc, critics do tend to characterise some of the imprint’s most well-loved creations as iconic. Take Harry Wingfield’s gorgeous series of tableaux for Shopping with Mother (1958). Mummy, smartly dressed in hat and gloves, guides her rosy-cheeked offspring down an old-fashioned high street (butcher, baker, greengrocer) in those halycon days before Decimalisation, the Internet and the Tescofication of Britain.

In the real world those kids would have been throwing a wobbly, pilfering sweets or just demanding to be taken home immediately. But in Ladybirdland everything is serene and pristine, like Tunnicliffe’s beautiful renditions of the changing seasons in the What to Look for series.

I recommend the Ladybird by Design exhibition if you’re a Ladybird collector, or you’re interested in mid-century British illustration, or you’ve reached that (middle) age when you want to wallow in nostalgia for the childhood you never had.

If Ladybird is too squeaky clean for your tastes, the spoofers have also thrown up some gems, including the De La Warr Pavilion’s Ladybird Reworked exhibit and artist Miriam Elia’s controversial “We go to the gallery” book.

I was surprised to find that Ladybird did have an edgier side. I picked up a copy of man and his car, a Ladybird Leaders title from 1974 that presents the automobile in a distinctly dystopian light.

“Cars seem to be everywhere” declares author James Webster, before linking these four-wheeled menaces to a wide range of rude, antisocial and criminal behaviour.

Man and his car, Ladybird books

Man and his car, Ladybird books

Man and his car, Ladybird books

 

Note how the author tactfully omits to mention those big old guns that the police (in their “fast cars”) are firing at the thieves.

Well how else are you going to keep the utopia that is Ladybirdland safe for all the boys and girls?

Plastic fantastic!

Not blown away: my dandelion seed head from the 70s.

I can never walk past a dandelion head without thinking how much I’d like to spray it with Elnett, encase it in plastic and preserve it for posterity. That’s because some of my happiest afternoons in the 70s were spent getting high on the fumes from my Plasticraft set.

There must be thousands of fiftysomethings like me, who unwrapped a box of Plasticraft one Christmas during the mid-70s and became hooked on what the manufacturer, Turner Research, tantalisingly described as a “fascinating new educational hobby”.

Inside the box was a ceramic mould, a tin of plastic resin, some hardener and a rather intimidating set of instructions for how to “create fascinating castings”. The idea was that you could take small objects – shells, coins, small toys – encase them in plastic and create paperweights, key-rings or even items of jewellery.

With a little help from my Dad, I was soon making artistic arrangements of our pre-decimal currency, garnished with sprigs of fake seaweed (helpfully supplied by those nice people at Turner Research). Sometimes I tinted the final layer of plastic with one of the supplied colours, so the miniature sea shells appeared to float on an ocean-blue background that was straight out of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

coin

A youthful Queen Elizabeth preserved for posterity.

Plasticraft was great for churning out Christmas and birthday presents for your relatives, without making inroads into your pocket money. I duly obliged by producing a series of paperweights that graced the mantelpieces and shelves of my nearest and dearest for years to come.

The dandelion cubes were a particular favourite, as it seemed miraculous to be able to preserve something as delicate as a seed head, without turning it into a soggy mess. (The trick was to harden it first with some of my grandmother’s hairspray.) I didn’t keep any of the dandelions, so it was a welcome surprise when my Mum recently returned the one pictured above.

Plasticraft dates from an era when mums and dads up and down the country were keen get their kids hooked on Origami or turning out innovative craft products in their spare time.

We also had an Enamelcraft set (possibly a Turner Research product) that was used to customise matchboxes with swirly patterns, which we then presented to the heavy smokers in the family. The candlemaking set proved a bit of a let-down, though I did enjoy experimenting with the scented wax products.

But Plasticraft was my favourite and it was an obsession that lasted for about five years. I think I got my set for Christmas around 1973, and I was still using it in 1977 when I created a glittery gold-backed souvenir from the Rock Follies TV show.

The smell of the plastic resin was highly addictive, though I don’t remember anyone suggesting that I open the windows during my crafting sessions or refrain from sticking my nose too deep into the mixing beaker. Those were the heady days before every remotely hazardous activity came with a Government Health Warning or was outlawed by interfering EU bureaucrats.

There’s not much information out there about Turner Research (a Leeds-based company) or what happened to them. A Plasticraft set sold on eBay earlier this year for £16. That seems like a small price to pay for one of the classic toys of the 70s.

I’d love to get back into plastic casting but I fear my best work may be behind me.

shells

TV lawyers – the real superheroes

A good man for a crisis? Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul (pic Netflix)

A good man for a crisis? Bob Odenkirk in Better Call Saul (pic Netflix)

In “Hero”, the latest episode of the new Netflix drama Better Call Saul, lawyer Jimmy McGill turns superhero as he rescues a worker dangling precariously from a giant advertising hoarding. The sweaty-palmed drama is just a stunt; Jimmy (better known to Breaking Bad fans as Saul Goodman) is after some free publicity in his ongoing battle with deep-pocketed rivals HHM. “Compared to them I’m just a kiddie lemonade stand trying to compete with Walmart,” he admits to some potential clients.

It’s great to see the brilliant Bob Odenkirk getting top billing in a show that explores the origins of the lugubrious attorney who became so integral to the criminal enterprises of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. On the evidence of four episodes, I think I’m going to enjoy this show more than its over-hyped predecessor.

With his ingenuity, self-deprecating humour and ability to talk the hind leg off a donkey (handy when Tuco is threatening to snip off his digits) Jimmy is a relatable figure for the average viewer who knows nothing about the law. It’s his innate likeability, combined with his down-at-heel appearance, that makes him the antithesis of most TV attorneys, who look as though they’ve been gelled, waxed and groomed to within an inch of their lives.

Despite Jimmy’s episode 4 heroics in Better Call Saul, TV’s law practitioners are not usually renowned for their acts of derring-do.  Even more versatile than the likes of Superman, Spider-Man and Batman, they spin a web of arguments, run rings around the opposition (in court) and destroy evil corporations through their intricate knowledge of the legal system.

Since I was a teenager I’ve loved TV legal dramas, with their irresistible of combination of expensive tailoring, high-stakes cases and verbal pyrotechnics. It all started in the late 70s with The Paper Chase, which followed the trials and tribulations of a bunch of Harvard law students.

James T Hart (James Stephens) and his fellow students were desperate to impress the intimidating, patrician Professor Kingsfield (played by the equally intimidating John Houseman). All I remember now is the Seals and Crofts theme song and the references to Carlill v Carbolic Smoke Ball Co – a contract case that came up during my own legal studies a few years later.

I was a law student at Bristol University in the mid-80s, but by 1986 I had opted for a career in the glamorous and low-paid world of book publishing. That was just around the time that Steven Bochco’s blockbuster legal drama, L.A. Law, was beginning its eight-year run.

The shoulder-pads, big hair and criminal over-use of blusher now seem as over the top as some of the cases tackled by the firm of McKenzie, Brackman, Chaney and Kuzak. (I remember one episode – “On the Toad Again” – that focused on the narcotic secretions of a cane toad.)

I couldn’t get enough of L.A. Law’s resident Lothario/raging egotist Arnold Becker (Corbin Bersen) or the never-ending love triangle involving power-suited Michael (Harry Hamlin) and Victor (Jimmy Smits) and the lovely Grace Van Owen (Susan Dey).

In the 90s I was hooked This Life, the BBC series about a bunch of young London lawyers and barristers, who had to fit law in around their endless bickering, drinking, shagging and drug-taking.  

I can’t remember much law being practised in This Life, but I did love those movie-themed episode titles – “The Bi Who Came in From the Cold”, “Diet Hard”, “Apocalypse Wow!”. The talented but tempestuous Anna (Daniela Nardini) was one of the best female characters on TV in that decade.

When The Good Wife began in 2009 I wasn’t that excited. As Alicia Florrick, the humiliated spouse returning to her legal roots, Julianna Margulies just seemed to be giving us a slight variation on aloof nurse Carol Hathaway from ER (another show set in Cook County, Chicago). She’d swapped the philandering Dr Doug Ross (George Clooney) for the philandering and disgraced State’s Attorney Peter Florrick (Chris Noth).

But over the course of five seasons (I’ve just started watching season 6 on More4) The Good Wife has just got better and better. Creators Michelle King and Robert King have succeeded in balancing internecine warfare within Lockhart & Gardner with courtroom shenanigans (quirky judges and salacious cases involving Colin Sweeney), and the “ripped from the headlines” topicality of that NSA storyline from season 5.

All that wit and cleverness would be less satisfying if The Good Wife didn’t also have real emotional depth and complexity. Much of that is down to the nuanced performance of Julianna Margulies, who I had totally underestimated as an actress. Adroitly switching between managing her teenage kids, sparring with her estranged husband and setting up a new law firm, Alicia has become a superwoman who is mistress of her intellect and (most of the time) her emotions.

Just three weeks ago I belatedly started watching Suits on Netflix. Nine days later I’d watched all of the first two series and I’m about to order season 3, though I’ve heard it’s a bit of let-down.

Suits stars Gabriel Macht as Harvey Specter, the ferociously ambitious corporate lawyer and “closer” of deals at the Manhattan firm of Pearson Hardman. Harvey reveres vinyl (records not furniture), collects sports memorabilia and wears more hair product than all those other TV lawyers put together. Less well-groomed is his young associate, Mike Ross (Patrick J Adams), who has an eidetic memory but no law degree.

Much as I love The Good Wife, I think Suits might be the ultimate TV show for viewers who enjoy the vicarious thrill of watching lawyers with an almost superhuman ability to argue their way out of any situation.

Suits also boasts Gina Torres as the imperious Jessica Pearson and one of the great comic creations of 21st-century TV in the monstrous but lovable Louis Litt (played with relish by Rick Hoffman).

If the TV gods ever bring Harvey Specter and Alicia Florrick together their offspring would be a lawyer of truly superheroic proportions.

Suits star Gabriel Macht (pic Genevieve)

Suits star Gabriel Macht (pic Genevieve licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

On the shelf again

My parents first met in a library in North London in the 1950s. In the following decades they acquired a house filled with hundreds of books and three well-read children. The fact that my mother values antiquarian volumes more than antique jewellery may go some way to explaining why I’m a bibliophile with a love of all things mid-century.

Though many traditional libraries in the UK are in danger of becoming little more than superannuated wi-fi hotspots, I still think of them as places you go to enjoy peace, quiet and the written word.

I like order on my shelves, which is one reason why moving home last autumn was such a trauma. Over the past six months, the bulk of my book collection went from this neat arrangement:

EmlynBooks

. . . to this semi-ordered chaos.
AtticBooks

Finally, this week I have some custom-made shelves in my attic/study room.

NewShelves

The bad news? Picture three doesn’t show any of my film, architecture or sports books, or some the colourful volumes featured at the Taft Hotel. They remain scattered around my flat in various corners and on non-matching shelves.

Earlier this week, The Guardian reported on a decline in the market for tablets like Apple’s ubiquitous iPad. According to Apple’s Tim Cook, one of the reasons for this worrying drop in our appetite for slim ‘n’ shiny gadgets is that “the upgrade cycle is longer”. All that means is that consumers aren’t ditching their tablets every 12-18 months, along with their smartphones.

That’s one of the reasons that I love my books. They may get a little bent or dusty over the years, or be superseded by film and TV tie-in versions or digital downloads, but they’ll never succumb to an obsolete battery or the lure of a higher resolution screen.

Books are for life. So next time you think about upgrading your phone, why not invest time and money in paper and ink instead. Treat your book collection to some decent shelving.

Happy reading!

Have yourself a Morecambe and Wise-free Christmas

Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise

70s comedy giants Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise

Excluding Morecambe and Wise from the festivities would be as unthinkable as sticking cigarette advertising on the side of the manger, or pouring sweet and sour sauce over your turkey dinner

Nothing says Christmas quite like yet more repeats of Morecambe and Wise. In a post-Christmas-lunch-induced torpor I sat through some of Morecambe & Wise In Pieces on BBC2. This hour-long show was billed as a celebration of the duo’s “most memorable and well-loved sketches”.

This year Morecambe and Wise were served up with a delectable accompanying dish of Dame Penelope Keith – aka the imperious Margo Leadbetter from vintage BBC sitcom The Good Life. All three are icons of the (now very tarnished) golden age of BBC TV in the 1970s and 80s – that innocent time in which Jimmy Savile was still venerated as an altruistic, cigar-chomping eccentric. How things have changed.

By Boxing Day night, the late lamented comedians (Eric Morecambe died in 1984 and Ernie Wise in 1999) had skipped over to Channel 5. There Morecambe & Wise Live! 1973 formed the meat in a cross-generational comedy sandwich of Rob Brydon and Tommy Cooper.

Of course Eric and Ernie are a Yuletide institution, and only a Scrooge like me would suggest otherwise. Excluding them from the festivities would be as unthinkable as sticking cigarette advertising on the side of the manger, or pouring sweet and sour sauce over your turkey dinner before flambeeing the Brussels sprouts.

But as you’ve probably guessed by now, I don’t like Morecambe and Wise. I didn’t find them funny in their 70s heyday, and despite my advancing years I’m still not moved to helpless laughter when they sidle back onto our screens during December.

So I deliberately didn’t use the word “watch” in my opening paragraph because Eric and Ernie form part of a rarely changing backdrop of Christmas TV that doesn’t demand my attention.

On the plus side,  Morecambe and Wise are reassuringly inoffensive by today’s expletive-ridden standards. Their schoolboy humour and ritual mockery of each other and their guests – Andre Previn (“Mr Preview), Shirley Bassey and Glenda Jackson – is still family friendly. You wouldn’t feel embarrassed to watch them with your granny, although she would probably have to explain who those 70s A-listers were.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate TV nostalgia at Christmas. I used to look forward to watching Judy Garland warbling her way through Meet Me in St Louis, or staying up for BBC2’s post-midnight offerings from the world of film noir or the House of Hammer. As a kid I could even enjoy a Yuletide season of Elvis Presley musicals – it helped pass those awkward hours between opening my presents and sitting down to lunch. I was less discerning in those days.

No, my gripe is that the diet of rehashed repeats is so predictable at this time of year and so heavily dominated by the 70s, a decade from which BBC executives and schedulers in particular seem unable to extricate themselves.

The ongoing veneration of 70s TV reminds me of “The Speech”, an episode of a more recent comedy classic, The IT Crowd. Moss (Richard Ayoade) and Roy (Chris O’Dowd) con clueless IT “relationship manager” Jen (Katherine Parkinson) into believing that the whole of the internet is contained in just one small and rather unimpressive-looking black box that has recently been demagnetised by none other than Stephen Hawking.

I imagine that the bosses at the BBC are a bit like those gullible (non-techy) employees at Reynholm Industries. They’re all in thrall to a small box in which a whole decade of 70s TV has been lovingly preserved for future generations. Every year they bring it out and pray over it, before once again revealing its treasures for the telly-watching masses.

So let’s go cold turkey next year and just cut Eric and Ernie from all the channels, along with The Good Life, the Carry On films and the execrable On the Buses. If you love this stuff (I am a big fan of the early Carry Ons) you can still get your fix on other “platforms”.

By Christopher William Adach from London, UK (WiPe - random_) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Have you tried turning him off and on again? The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd (pic Christopher William Adach)

In our house we had the internet on loan for Christmas Day so we could watch back-to-back episodes of The IT Crowd. My nephew, Gadget Boy, had a new smart watch and his dad had just been given a Chromecast, to convert the box into a wi-fi enabled wonder.

Our comedy fix was handily streamed from Gadget Boy’s wrist to the TV screen, without any interference from schedulers or 70s obsessives.

I wonder what everyone will be watching in 40 years time. I hope it’s not Morecambe and Wise.

Sherlock Holmes at the Museum of London

Benedict_Cumberbatch_filming_Sherlock (pic by Fat Les (bellaphon) from London, UK)

A Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Benedict Cumberbatch

The Museum of London – a mid-70s hotchpotch of grubby concrete, white tiles and multi-level entrances – doesn’t look like the most obvious place to begin an excursion into the Victorian era. Hansom cabs being in short supply, I travelled to Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die on a shiny new Metropolitan Line tube. I changed trains at Baker Street (where else?).  After descending two floors at the museum, I was directed “through the bookcase” into a world of gaslight, deerstalkers, dastardly villains and a consulting detective with superhuman intellectual powers and an unhealthy appetite for cocaine.

I discovered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories a few Christmases ago and found them a welcome distraction from the bland landscape of seasonal telly. I’ve not seen much of the BBC’s Sherlock series because I prefer to watch the stories in their original (Victorian) setting. I’ll take the commanding presence of Jeremy Brett over the foppish Benedict Cumberbatch any day, but I know there are many fans who’d disagree.

In the first room of Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die the faces and voices of a century of screen Sherlocks crowd in on every side. William Gillette (who created the character on stage), Basil Rathbone, Christopher Lee, Tom Baker and Robert Downey Jr look down from banks of TV screens and walls of posters.

If you’re a film fan, your appetite will be well and truly whetted by the some of the posters advertising both “official” Sherlock Holmes movies and spin-offs such as the garishly shot A Study in Terror (1965). A slavering beast on Hammer’s superb Hound of the Baskervilles (1959) rubs shoulders with a busty femme fatale on the French poster from Billy Wilder’s 1970 The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes.

Fans of antiquarian books will enjoy seeing the beautifully illustrated and carefully preserved first editions of A Study in Scarlet. They’ll also discover a bit about the history of Tit-Bits magazine (note that hyphen) and its publisher George Newnes, who was the man behind The Strand Magazine.

If you’ve simply come to wallow in Sherlock Holmes memorabilia, you’ll have to go almost to the edge of the Reichenbach Falls to find it. In the penultimate room of the exhibition, fans can swoon over that Belstaff Milford coat worn with such panache by Benedict Cumberbatch. There are also cases of displays featuring everything from vintage typewriters, candlestick telephones, pipes and (cunning) disguises, to the fascinating accoutrements of the 19th-century cocaine addict.

But in between the posters and the artefacts, some visitors might be feel that they’ve strayed into a different exhibition.  That’s because after introducing us to his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (some of the author’s Southsea notebooks are on display), this show veers off into the streetscapes of Victorian London.

For those who like old maps, The Museum of London has meticulously plotted the course of some of Holmes’s most famous adventures, including A Study in Scarlet and The Hound of the Baskervilles. (In this pre-Google Maps era, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle apparently relied on the Post Office Directory to plan his indefatigable detective’s progress around town and the suburbs.)

Different colours highlight the routes takes by Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Dr Watson, on foot, by train or their preferred mode of transport – a hansom cab. Underneath these maps, speeded-up video footage shows the same journeys through 21st-century London. What struck me was how boring and homogeneous the centre of the city looks today from the back of a speeding cab – a succession of Starbucks, Prêt à Mangers and mobile phone shops.

One of the five sections of Sherlock Holmes: The Man Who Never Lived and Will Never Die is given over to prints, etchings and paintings of London as it looked in Conan Doyle’s day. While these pictures don’t directly illustrate the stories they do give a flavour of the buildings, fashions and vehicles of this era of “pea-soupers”. Here you’ll find household names (Matisse, Whistler) cheek by jowl with many long-forgotten chroniclers of London’s lost landscapes.

In a different venue, the focus of this exhibition might have leaned more heavily towards the history of Sherlock Holmes on the big and small screen. At the Museum of London it is the inextricable links between the Victorian city and the adventures of Conan Doyle’s most celebrated character that take centre stage.

Sherlock Holmes Exhibition at the Museum of London

The Museum of London plays host to Sherlock Holmes

LA Stories: Lance Armstrong on Film

"<a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lance_Armstrong_MidiLibre_2002.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Lance_Armstrong_MidiLibre_2002.jpg">Lance Armstrong MidiLibre 2002</a>" by <a href="//de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benutzer:Hase" class="extiw" title="de:Benutzer:Hase">de:Benutzer:Hase</a> - Self-photographed. Licensed under <a title="Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0" href="http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0">CC BY-SA 3.0</a> via <a href="//commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/">Wikimedia Commons</a>.

Lance Armstrong hides those “lyin’ eyes” during the 2002 Grand Prix Midi Libre

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”.

Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job

Under Offer: Estate Agents on the Job (BBC2)

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.

Lewis Rossiter

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.

Even more wickedly enjoyable than the downfall of Culture Secretary Maria Miller

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.

The Crimson Field

Hermione Norris in The Crimson Field (BBC1)

Hermione Norris is out to spook those new nurses in BBC1’s The Crimson Field

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.

A Talent for Survival: The London Group Reception at Tate Britain

Dr Richard Cork, Susan Haire

Dr Richard Cork with London Group President Susan Haire (pic Tom Scase)

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.

London Group catalogues

A selection of catalogues from London Group exhibitions, held in the archives at
Tate Britain (pic Tom Scase).

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.”

http://www.thelondongroup.com