I presented this half-hour documentary on L’Origine du Monde for BBC Radio 4 on the 150th anniversary of Courbet’s painting — and in the wake of a big court case against Facebook in Paris about censorship. A century and a half after this work was first created, it’s still causing controversy: if you post it on your Facebook wall, your account can be suspended because it activates the pornography sensors.
Recording for this programme with producer Natalie Steed was a lot of fun. We spent two days at the Musee d’Orsay, where the painting has been exhibited since 1995, interviewing tourists and museum visitors about their reactions in front of the canvas. They were everything from excited and impressed to indifferent and blasé to passionate and, in one memorable case, “aroused”. (A very eloquent young Chinese gentleman who spoke beautiful English. I will not forget him in a hurry. I had to take a break after recording his interview because I couldn’t stop laughing. At least he was honest.)
L’Origine is just one of a series of artworks – and other images – causing problems on social media sites who struggle with the distinction between art and obscenity. I wrote about this for Sunday Times New Review. My favourite example is the lady who had the picture of her simnel cake removed from Instagram because the marzipan balls looked too much like nipples. Not quite the same as censoring great works of art, perhaps, but just as pointless.
Thrilled to be on talking about Be More Margo with Alistair McGowan (one of my all-time favourites), Evelyn Glennie (the most inspirational woman imaginable), Matthew Herbert (wonderfully innovate and eccentric soundscape creator), Phil Gayle (news hero!) and Clive Anderson (presenter hero!). I just about managed to keep it together despite getting a bit weepy during the Scottish folk singing from Karine Polwart and the plinky-plonky Vietnamese music from Hanoi Masters. Listen again here.
My 13-year-old self would have been thrilled to be sitting next to Martin Kemp OF SPANDAU BALLET FAME. My 43-year-old self was also pretty embarrassing. Fearne Cotton and Martin Kemp are sitting in for Graham Norton this summer on the Saturday morning show on BBC Radio 2. Much talk about Edinburgh, why people do stand-up comedy (a very good question), avocados, The Kids From Fame (they played High Fidelity for me!) and, less gratifying, golf. That was mostly Martin. That is what he does now. Not GOLD. But GOLF. Well, we all have to age somehow.
How much can I say this: I love War and Peace. It’s compelling, exciting, beautiful and – perhaps most surprisingly of all – (intentionally) funny. So if you’re hating War and Peace in any way at all, my (somewhat gushing, I’m afraid) reviews are not the reviews for you. Most people, however, are loving this six-part drama, concluding Sunday 7 Feb. I calculate that precisely 4.9% of viewers *are* not enjoying it. These people claim that it’s just not faithful enough to the original. I also calculate that approximately 99% of these people are only pretending to have read the book. In the main the comments are positive and jubilant. It has certainly made large numbers of people want to read the original (whether again or for that first time), which for a 540,000 word book is an amazing feat in itself. And don’t get me started on Dolokhov and his amazing feats (and feets and hands and general physiognomy).
And so the Downton era comes to a close! I have been blogging on Downton for the Guardian since September 2010 when I wrote this piece: “Maggie Smith and Hugh Bonneville in a Julian Fellowes period drama? I may have died and gone to Sunday night TV heaven.” Ah, how the folly of our youth returns to haunt us… What I wrote during series one (and the comments underneath, suggesting what a surprising success this is for ITV) contrasts horrifically with what was to come. By 2014, I was writing that it was“one of Britain’s most toxic exports.”
Downton was a lovely surprise (for one series) that outstayed its welcome. It should have been cut off at series two or three (or ideally, actually, series one). It had enough meat to sustain one perfect outing (just like Gosford Park) but it never became a proper soap opera. Good soap opera is meticulously planned and calibrated. This always felt as if it had too many plots and too many characters and was just throwing anything at the (beautifully papered) wall to see if it would stick. Fortunately the gloss and style of the thing camouflaged this expertly and turned it into a cash cow the likes of which ITV must only have dreamed.
Tonight’s Christmas episode yielded no surprises (warning: spoilers) with Uncle Julian tying up the ends he could be bothered to tie up (sometimes rather too tightly) but leaving may things dangling. This is the Downton way. I will miss it, strangely. And I will also dream of Mr Pamuk and the Lost-in-Germany Newspaper Man.
I spent much of Christmas Eve ALONE in the Woman’s Hour Green Room, where the only catering is very bad coffee and highly oxygenated mineral water. This is because the discussion on “Christmas traditions as documented on Woman’s Hour” was the last item on the programme and everyone else had already gone into the studio and was having a high old time whilst I sat on a sofa matching my (red, of course – it’s Christmas) dress listening to their frolics ALONE. All for this discussion with Jenni Murray about (1) changing sheets (or not) when guests come to visit (2) what to wear on Christmas Day (A RED DRESS) and (3) how to cope with children and their consumerist demands (er, probably ignore them). Hats off to Lianne Carroll who performed a beautiful song about being utterly miserable in December. Appropriate.
Talking about Say Sorry to the Lady on BBC R4 Woman’s Hour — and about why women seem to say sorry more than men, from 34 mins. Linguist Dr Louise Mullany, from the University of Nottingham, talking down the line appeared to disagree. She argued that men *do* say sorry as much as women but we don’t see them saying sorry as being something that is apologetic or pathetic. I’m not sure what this means. But I still think women should say sorry less. That is easier than the alternative, ie. arguing that when you say sorry it should not be interpreted as apologetic or pathetic. Good luck with that.
In the green room it was good to meet the least apologetic woman in the universe: Baroness Valerie Amos, now director of SOAS, University of London. She is kickass.
On Twitter, Jackie Watson sent me a very interesting rebuttal to this argument from Deborah Cameron — who argues that it’s basically sexist to examine how women speak at all — they should be allowed to say whatever they want (however doormat they sound) and they should not be expected to speak in the same way as men. I agree with the second bit. But men don’t own assertiveness and by being more assertive in the way you express yourself, it doesn’t mean you have to talk like a man. I don’t really agree with the rest of it – here – but all the same, it’s fascinating. By the way, if you are going to talk like a man, please talk like BRIAN BLESSED. I AM TALKING LIKE HIM RIGHT NOW.
Loved being part of the team covering the election “hangover” coverage the day after. (Pictured above with Jenni Murray and polling experts Sarah Childs and Michelle Harris.) Listen Again here. It was a strange experience in some ways as a lot of the results had not quite been finalised when we went on air. Nick Clegg, Nigel Farage and Ed Miliband had yet to resign. And yet the writing was already on the wall. I was reporting on the tone and the content of the TV coverage overnight and, unsurprisingly for Woman’s Hour, there was a lot of focus on the fact that women were very poorly represented amongst the political pundits and reporters. Where’s the female Dimbleby? Come on! The best bit, though, is Jenni Murray giving me a slap down for saying that my highlight of the entire night was a woman’s hair style. OK, that was a bit shallow. But the coverage was extremely boring. And Bridget Philipson MP — in Sunderland, one of the first results called — does have phenomenal hair. I won’t mention it again BUT LOOK AT HER HAIR. (Picture: Sunderland Echo)
God help me, I am reviewing Downton Abbey for the FIFTH SERIES, starting tomorrow. If you want to catch up on the last thing we saw (Christmas special 2013), the review is here — warning: spoilers. Secondary warning; it was the one where we saw Carson’s ankles. Remember? Yes, we would all rather forget. Not that he didn’t have lovely ankles. He did. It was just a very weak and disappointing episode. As so many of them are.
Regular readers will know that I have come to love to hate this strange phenomenon, which has recently morphed into what I described this week in the Guardian as “the UK’s most toxic cultural export.” The new series starts tomorrow night and the review of the first episode goes up as soon as the credits roll. Pass the petits fours.
One person who seems to have escaped at the right time at least is Dan Stevens: I interviewed him about his roles in The Guest and A Walk Among the Tombstones this autumn and his new life in Brooklyn, where he couldn’t be further away from the life of Matthew Crawley if he tried. And where he eats a lot of vegan food and has a military-style fitness regime. I don’t feel Dame Maggie would approve.
Latest from BBC Radio 4: Saturday Review with Will Gompertz, Ekow Eshun and Gillian Slovo, talking about Lars von Trier’s (AWFUL) Nymphomaniac Vol I and II (this 5-hour film marathon cost me £70 in childcare and I will never forgive the director for it…), True Detective (excellent) and Gary Shteyngart’s hilarious memoir Little Failure. On Front Row with Kirsty Lang talking about Justin Bieber and the history of the celebrity mug-shot.
Sky TV: talking about women and boardroom quotas (I’m all for them) and the ongoing Bridget Jones phenomenon…
BBC Radio Bristol live from the Independent Bath Literature Festival (28 Feb to 9 Mar), where I’m Artistic Director (in my beret – oh yeah).
Gearing up for the paperback launch of I Laughed, I Cried, here’s Summerhall TV’s interview recorded in the wonderful Looking Glass Books in Edinburgh.
Woman’s Hour with Jenny Eclair on losing weight and resolutions:
And I’m linking to this Saturday Live recording from last year as it won’t be around on Listen Again for much longer: they got their money’s worth — I’m talking about juggling stand-up and family, speaking Russian and singing to Paul Nicholas… (pictured here with Rev Richard Coles, Sian Williams and David Chilvers).