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Usually presided over by Mark Lawson, a group of artists, critics and
commentators come together to create a group of four to discuss the arts
from that week and for the week coming up. Covering books, theatre, art
exhibitions, films and more they debate each on it's relative
Following Newsnight on a Friday night, this show is always worth a watch, although I'll be honest and say that often I'll only manage the first 10 minutes or so where they discuss films out that night. The level of discussion is much higher than what you would get in the pub on a Friday evening - it is more like a very posh dinner party in a rich part of London. Often it will be intelligent opinions and comments, but all too often it all becomes pretentious and snobby.
I'm not against people having their opinions and am open the idea that I am pretty dumb when it comes to art and stating my views in a clear concise manner, but it always strikes me that some pannelists are pitched their comments above the audience and attempting to be seen as better than some of their fellow guests. But, even when it is like this, it is still interesting even only because it is funny in a way to listen to them drone on.
Lawson is a solid enough presenter and does a pretty good job of marshalling and having his own opinion. Recent additions to the panel have included Will Self and Ian Hislop, which I think may be a slight move by the show away from the more inaccessible type of chat. Adding Mark Kermode to the group is a great idea, he talks very down to earth but is still able to hold his own with the others. After him my favourite is Bonnie Greer. She carries herself very well in any argument and speaks with passion and authority about things. In comparison I always find Germaine Greer to be pompous and very dismissive of others in the discussions, but she is a dream compared to Tom Paulin! Paulin is the most dour man I have ever seen and never seems happy with anything; he always makes me smile when I see him because he is so well caricatured in impressions shows. Ekow Eshun tries far too hard and other panellists are too numerous to list here.
Overall this is an enjoyable critical review show which helps me because I'd like to be able to discuss things at that level with the confidence of the Greers et al. Even when it all gets a bit pompous, it is still fun in a way even if some of the snobbery is annoying.
This is an important programme to have on TV... it may seem like academics
and commentators 'speaking above' the level of regular television or life,
but frankly, why shouldn't there be a place for this? So much of television
seems positively afraid of disclosing any intelligence or thoughtfulness;
this is a welcome step aside from the screaming, noise and 'hi jinks' of
Some panelists are more to my taste than others. Mark Kermode is excellent; not perhaps as academic as some, but deeply knowledgeable in the field of Film and always provides a brisk, contrasting style of debate. It might be nice to see the likes of Richard Jobson more often as well; he is quite a pugnacious critic of films.
I cannot agree with the previous reviewer concerning Tom Paulin; the man is in effect the star of the show with his languid, drawn-out manner and sublime cantankerousness! And it's certainly not true that he is always negative; he can often praise some pretty surprising things. His academic style is appropriate considering he is a lecturer in English Literature at Oxford University, as well as being a poet. I think it's good that we have such contributors on TV... a shame perhaps that they are so clearly confined to niche programmes like this and to the under-appreciated haven of BBC4.
Wilf Self and Bonnie Greer can give interesting views; as can Germaine Greer... I seem particularly to remember an almighty row she had with Paulin over a Bloody Sunday documentary or dramatisation; whenever Paulin touches the subject of Northern Ireland (just on the recent modern "Canterbury Tales", he said of a performance: "James Nesbitt doing the honest Ulsterman, all that fake Ulster sincerity, some of us know so well") things do tend to get quite fiery. When a subject really arouses Paulin's ire, he has been known to use very outspoken language... a loose cannon? I certainly don't think that passionate views should be necessarily tempered where relevant.
Paul Morley comes across very well, a sharply intelligent and quite droll cultural critic; it's a shame really that there's so little musical analysis on the show as compared to the other Arts, as Morley is one of the pre-eminent figures in (popular and otherwise) music criticism - from his days at the NME in the early 1980s to his recent tome "Words and Music". It's fairly typical that he takes a TV drama say - like "The Deal" - and applies amusing popular culture and musical analogies. Always illuminating and opinionated; which this show is at its best. Will Self as many might imagine is very suited to this sort of programme; perhaps sometimes straying from relevance but often having very incisive contributions. Natasha Walter is a good example of a panelist with feisty opinions, but not quite the overbearing quality of Germaine Greer.
So, I'm particularly always glad when Morley, Kermode or Paulin are on. Less so, I'm afraid for some other occasional guests; Ian Hislop is trenchant in a slightly closed-minded 'man on the street' manner sometimes. Michael Portillo - a surprising recent addition - has seemed a similar outsider figure to the academia and critic's circle that it often is. His contributions are I suppose an interesting contrast, yet it's too early to say whether he'll be an irritating figure such as Hislop. Rosie Boycott is perhaps one of the more ubiquitous of the panelists I dislike; mealy-mouthed, really very self-satisfied and staid style; again like Hislop, she comes from a non-Arts journalist background. Miranda Sawyer too can sometimes be annoying, though slightly less so than Boycott. Perhaps some of the panelists are a little too bland - there are quite a few I can't really remember, writing this article - but generally at least most have something of worth to say. It might be an idea I think for a broader array of lesser-known faces, from the academic world or from writing to be given a go, in place of some of the less insightful panelists.
Main presenter Mark Lawson does the job effortlessly; a polite, bespectacled and genial host, gently guiding the discussion and providing contadictory points of view where needed. Kirsty Walk - she of that inimitable Scottish dialect - a presenter of Newsnight proper, quite often takes the chair; while not quite as assured and deft in this area as Lawson, she shows enthusiasm and handles things effectively.
Overall, this programme is a delight to watch for those of us interested in the Arts. I do not think that one can be expected to be anything like an expert in all of the Arts that NR covers, yet if you go in with an open mind, you may learn quite a lot. That is the benefit of having experts and keen intellects discussing such subjects. It is clearly all for the better of the show as television that it has regular panelists who can be as entertaining and erudite in their own different ways as Tom Paulin, Paul Morley, Bonnie Greer, Will Self and Mark Kermode. This is a relaxed and likeable "Newsnight Review" of the week's Arts, and I always tune in to watch it, either on TV or via the internet when I'm at University.
Rating (!): ****/*****
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