An impeccably rule-observing programme from the BBC: Art That Made Us reviewed

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

9 April 2022

9:00 AM

Art That Made Us; The Fall of the House of Maxwell


Art That Made Us is an ambitious new series, firmly in the ‘history of something in a load of different objects’ category. That the something in question is Britain duly means that we get the BBC’s usual, and perhaps even very British, mix of deep patriotism on the one hand and deep suspicion of patriotism on the other.

The opening episode tackled the era formerly known as the Dark Ages, which the narrator felt duty-bound to remind us yet again was actually a period of great creativity and innovation. (Not that you could blame him. The darkness of the Dark Ages seems to be one of those myths that no amount of facts can ever destroy – along with, say, the Rolling Stones being the bad boys of 1960s pop, even though the Beatles were filling their boots with speed and Hamburg prostitutes while Mick Jagger was studying accountancy at the LSE.)

The programme began with a brief spot of scene-setting. ‘It’s 400 AD in what will one day become Great Britain,’ intoned the narrator – and to prove it, we were shown some ants on a forest floor. It was then time for the first piece of art: ‘Spong Man’, an undeniably affecting clay carving of a bloke deep in thought.

Each piece is given a different commentator and for this one Antony Gormley spoke stirringly about sculpture’s ability ‘to communicate with people who haven’t been born yet’ and of Britain’s ‘amazing unbroken history of making’. But just in case this might cause undue swelling in any watching British breasts, we were also sternly informed that ‘Spong Man’ ‘transcends nationality’, having been made by ‘European migrants that we would one day call Anglo-Saxons’.

The programme, in fact, got itself into something of a tangle on the migrant question. Most of the time it emphasised with possibly unnecessary vigour the obvious point that without immigration there would be no Britain as we recognise it. Yet, when it came to the people who’d already been here, namely the Celts, it launched a full-throated lament for how their culture, language and religion had been wiped out by these villainous colonisers. It even found an academic willing to recite the old chestnut that ‘the Celts have been written out of history’, because (all together now) ‘history is written by the victors’. (In which case, all you can say is that the victors didn’t do a very good job.)

And on the whole this is how the programme proceeded. Every piece of art was given a thoughtful and intelligent appraisal, informing us, for example, that the Lindisfarne Gospels were as much a triumph of chemical technology as of calligraphy, which is why the pigments have survived for 14 centuries. We also learned that modern jewellers have no idea how to reproduce the fancier techniques of their Anglo-Saxon forebears.

But at every stage in would come the slightly desperate editorialising and its doomed quest to try and reconcile what we were seeing with the often conflicting pieties of our own day. All of which, I suppose, only goes to show the programme’s central thesis was a sturdy one: that every artwork, apparently including TV documentaries, has much to tell us about the age it was created in.

One of the dodgier assertions on Thursday was that all the people who made the art were ‘mavericks and rule-breakers’ (the Lindisfarne Gospels? The Bayeux Tapestry?), a tradition to which this impeccably rule-observing programme clearly imagined it belonged. Luckily, if you wanted to see a true maverick on BBC2 this week, there was always The Fall of the House of Maxwell.

Monday’s first episode of three got off to a rather strange start. An American podcaster turned up to point at the jail where Ghislaine is currently incarcerated, gloatingly assured us that it’s ‘the worst prison in the whole system’ and inaccurately claimed that ‘you can hear the screams’. After that, things settled down into a solid (i.e. still eye-popping) account of Robert’s odyssey from a Czech shtetl to a 65th birthday party attended by 5,000 VIPs where his arrival was accompanied by a fanfare of heraldic trumpets.

The programme’s chronology alternated between Maxwell’s last days on his yacht and all that had led up to them, managing to crack up some genuine tension, despite us having no doubt where it was all heading. What was new, meanwhile, were the recordings of telephone conversations (made by the man himself) between Maxwell executives during those final days. The execs offered a masterclass in the unspoken as their anxiety grew about where he was, how to get in touch with him and, above all, what the hell was going on. Except of course that they sort of understood. ‘The fear is…’ said one. ‘Well, we all know what the fear is.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments