Dwarfs in Art: A New Perspective - BBC4
Dwarfs in Art: A New Perspective review – a compelling reappraisal of the overlooked and undervalued
This BBC Four documentary raised questions about othering, exploitation and the importance of representation – not just in art, but in society as a whole.
I love BBC Four documentaries about paintings, although I realise they are my equivalent of Slow Television, the genre that emerged briefly when Norwegian state TV broadcast a train journey in real time for hours and hours, and “watching paint dry” was useless as a metaphor. You would be forgiven, then, for glazing over at the prospect of yet another genteel tour of oil paintings and country houses, but to miss Dwarfs In Art: A New Perspective because of preconceptions would be a shame, as it offers much more than dry academia and nice scenery.
Richard Butchins’ documentary takes as its starting point representations of dwarfism in art and culture, and uses examples throughout history to challenge prevailing attitudes towards not only dwarves, but people with disabilities across the board. Butchins is not a dwarf, although he is disabled (as a result of childhood polio) and he has mental health issues, he explains, doing a loop around his temples with his finger.
Dwarfism interests him for many reasons; he calls it “a hidden chapter in both the history of art and the history of disability”. He also says that, unlike some disabilities, dwarfism can’t be hidden, and he uses the spectacle of difference to lead him into some fascinating discussions about othering, exploitation and the importance of representation.
Butchins starts in ancient Greece and Rome, examining manuscripts and icons that indicate how dwarves were seen as caricatures, figures of fun, as “a tool for entertainment”. This has, he posits, set a precedent for how people with dwarfism are seen today. He leaps forward to Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, then talks to people with dwarfism about how they deal with being called “Mini-Me” by strangers who don’t seem to see the offence in likening them to a “psychopathic baby”. From the Wizard of Oz to Life’s Too Short, Butchins pulls out example after example of dwarves being the butt of the joke.
This democratic approach to art, bringing in films, television and fairytales, with their wild-haired, grotesque monsters that symbolise the darkest sides of human nature, works a treat. Even garden gnomes, imported from Germany, get a look in, as Butchins wonders whether they became popular when dwarves stopped being fashionable accessories in high society and were relegated to porcelain ornaments instead. This may sound brutal, but his candour is as important as his curiosity. As he documents variations on the same story – people turned into entertainment (at best) as a result of their differences – you get the impression that he is quietly seething at this systematic reduction of people to commodities.
There was also a lot to enjoy as we careered towards the modern era. Kristina Gray wrote a children’s book about achondroplasia after realising that her son, who has this form of dwarfism, had few positive images to look up to. Even a doctor, she recalls, told her that her son, then six weeks old, would probably work in the entertainment business. Shocking as this is, it is easy to see why he might have thought that when we are shown how this stereotype has persisted through the ages. The footage and photographs of old freak shows was intriguing, but the archive interview of a man discussing their demise, from around the 1950s, was even more so: he explained that nobody wanted to be part of freak shows any more, because the welfare state meant they were no longer poor enough to need it. An interview with Peter Blake about his fascination with dwarves and freak shows was a respectful discussion from slightly different points of view, on the ethics of an old work called Dwarfs and Midgets. Diane Arbus, so often accused of exploitation for her famous photographs of carnival workers and dwarfs, was treated to a sympathetic analysis for her portraits of lives on the margins.
The overall question seemed to be whether we are moving towards a new perspective, not just in art, but in society as a whole. Butchins is cautiously optimistic. The hour ends with a paean to Peter Dinklage, whose character, Tyrion, in Game of Thrones is not a figure of fun, but a hero of the story. He is, everyone seems to agree, a sign that times are changing.
Morecambe and Wise in America - GOLD
Morecambe & Wise in America review – Eric and Ern are back! What a joy
It’s a true Christmas treat, witnessing magical footage of the comedy nonpareils, seen for the first time in the UK. May our hearts bubble over with helpless laughter
This has been, I think we can all agree, a hard year. Perhaps even harder than 2016 and 2017, which themselves … weren’t great. And last night I went for dinner with a friend, who pointed out that this is not even the end but barely the beginning – let alone the beginning of the end – for either Trump or Brexit. And that both, in fact, are the opening salvoes in a war that will dog us until the climate change it has led us to ignore kills us all.
But! It doesn’t matter! No, really. Because of one thing and one thing only: new footage, never before seen (in the UK), of Eric and Ernie – the greatest, the nonpareils, of everything good, holy and worth not crunching down on the cyanide capsule for – delivered to our doors this evening and for the next two weeks by Jonathan Ross on Gold. Morecambe & Wise in America is an account of the comedy duo’s five years of tripping across the pond to appear on the US’s biggest variety programme, The Ed Sullivan Show, in the 1960s. So, a new Morecambe and Wise Christmas special, you could say, while barely paltering with the truth, here in 2018. Let your heart bubble with happiness accordingly.
Mine did throughout last night’s opening episode. Partly at the interviews with Morecambe’s wife Joan and two of their children, who so clearly adored and adore him still. Partly at the laughter of Glenda Jackson, Anita Harris, Nicholas Parsons, Diana Rigg and other stars of stage and screen as they remembered taking part in the pair’s sketches at the height of their UK television fame in the 70s and 80s. Partly at the way the faces of today’s comedians, and of Vince Calandra (talent coordinator on The Ed Sullivan Show) fill with awe at the technical mastery of Eric and Little Ern at work before they succumb inexorably to helpless laughter like the rest of us.
But mostly, of course, it bubbled with joy at seeing the new stuff. Ed Sullivan was on one of his European talent-scouting missions when he took his seat at the 1962 London Variety show at the Palladium. Morecambe and Wise, who had been friends since they were 15 and working as a double act since 1941, effectively topped the bill. They had fully recovered from their false start with the BBC (a show called Running Wild, which was so bad that it led one paper to publish the legendary review that began “Definition of the week: TV set – the box in which they buried Morecambe and Wise”) and were now riding high with their ATV show Two of a Kind, over which they had full approval of scripts written by Dick Hills and Sid Green. When Sullivan saw them, he immediately booked them for three appearances on his hugely popular and powerful show.
They went on as absolute unknowns and decided to stick with some tried-and-tested routines for their first appearance. They had a dress rehearsal, which Eric likened to playing landladies’ night in Blackpool. If you need this translating, see me afterwards. The short version is that it didn’t go well.
The dress rehearsal, of course, is not on tape. But their actual appearance – after Sullivan introduces “More-CAM and Wise!” – is. The first few jokes are greeted with the sound of bafflement, which is, unfortunately, silent. “I’ve got sweaty palms,” says Eric’s son Gary as he watches in the family living room. His sister Gail nods tensely.Then we all watch as a quarter of a century of friendship, practice and experience come into play alongside their irreducible, unreproduceable chemistry. Their confidence and timing never falter. The audience smells no blood and begins to relax. The three-foot sword swallower gag gets a laugh, the slapping routine gets a bigger one. By the time Eric is catching things in his paper bag, they are away.
But they had to do better the next time. And they did. They went with less crosstalk and more visual gags, and ended with Eric falling through the scenery. By the time they got to their third appearance, they were able to persuade the host himself to take part in the “Boom-Oo-Yatta-Ta-Ta” routine and despite – no, not because of, despite – Ed Sullivan remaining resolutely Ed Sullivan throughout, it killed. “He was usually pretty bad at these things,” Calandra recalled of his boss with an unmistakeable note of pain at the memory of gags ruined. “This is the best I’ve ever seen him. He usually screws it up completely.”
Such a funny way to make a living. But thank God they did. And Jonathan Ross has the grace and sense to stay out of the material’s way. More joy next week. It will be a happy new year to begin with at least.
Gaga for Dada: The Original Art Rebels - BBC4
Gaga for Dada: The Original Art Rebels, BBC Four
Inspiring student pranks and political satire, Dada is the lifeblood of 20th century culture
If you’ve had half an eye on BBC Four’s conceptual art week, you’ll have noticed that the old stuff is where it’s at, with Duchamp’s urinal making not one but two appearances, equalled only by Martin Creed, that other well-known, conceptual stalwart (who actually isn’t as old as he looks). The BBC would say that this is because 2016 marks the centenary of Dada, the anarchic, absurdist art movement (if a movement is what it was) that saw artists begin routinely to challenge and ridicule accepted ideas about art – what it is, why it is and what it’s for.
The other reason, as demonstrated in Tate Britain’s disastrous Conceptual Art in Britain: 1964-1979 show earlier this year, is that if you take away the lavatorial mischief-making of Duchamp’s urinal and Manzoni’s tinned shit, the discussion of conceptual art can all too easily slip into beard-stroking self-parody.
Certainly Vic Reeves (or Jim Moir as he was tonight, although what the difference is who knows) did a good job of persuading us that Dada is at the root of everything subversive, silly and conceptual in the 20th century and beyond, with his own brand of humour anticipated in the nonsense-language performances at Zurich’s Cabaret Voltaire. A stunned audience looked on as Moir donned a cardboard costume to re-enact Hugo Ball's Magical Bishop speech of 1916: it was pure Vic & Bob and bizarre proof that there really is nothing new under the sun.
Martin Creed, an artist as barmy as he is delightful, served as a sort of living embodiment of Dada, not least because no-one, including Moir, can ever tell whether he’s taking the mick or not. Having sparked tabloid outrage with Dadaesque installations like Work No. 227: The Lights Going On and Off, 2000, Creed greeted with amused interest the news that his installation Work No. 200: Half the Air in a Given Space, 1998, had in fact been done by Man Ray in the 1920s.
Likewise, animator Terry Gilliam revealed that an early review had described him as “a product of Max Ernst”, whose collages he had in fact never seen. Shown a film by Hans Richter featuring the silly walks that have since become a Monty Python trademark, he, like Creed, was unperturbed, preferring to see these much earlier incarnations as evidence of the continued vigour of Dada. As they saw it, Dada was a sort of continuous revolution, relevant today but born out of the horror of the First World War, when one form of madness was offered as a response to another.
Short of a sidekick to banter with, Moir’s relentless hilarity needed a focus, brilliantly provided by Martin Creed who was more than a match for him in the silliness stakes, throwing down the gauntlet by casually revealing the neatly dismantled Fiat Panda in his spare room. If that brought back memories of undergraduate high jinks, the essentially Dadaist sensibility of the student jape was taken as an excuse for Reeves, accompanied by a game Cornelia Parker, to rather lamely stick balaclavas on the Bond Street statues of Roosevelt and Churchill.
Like much of Vic Reeves’s work it was an acquired taste that fluctuated wildly between overdone funniness and more subtle humour that delivered moments of insight. For some, the presence of Jim Moir will no doubt smack of “dumbing down”, but really, this just isn't the case: who better to talk about Dada than someone who has spent his entire working life in a Dadaist mindset?