TV UK, 19 July

Michael Portillo failed to find a new conservatism, so his new TV show is about music.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Politics

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If nothing else, last week’s Art That Shook The World (BBC2) demonstrated that former Tory cabinet ministers can go on to play a useful role in society, which is nice.

Michael Portillo has done TV before: he did a BBC2 programme about his father’s involvement in the Spanish Civil War, and a Channel 4 series called Portillo’s Progress: In Search of a New Conservatism. He didn’t find anything, so here he is talking about music. Standing in a circle of fire, Portillo declared (as is the form these days) that he is passionate about Wagner’s Ring Cycle, before going on to muse about the sublime beauty of the music and the work’s great theme of love and power.

There was the obligatory hand-wringing about Wagner’s anti-Semitism and Hitler’s fondness for his music, and a rabbi who insisted that something of Wagner’s ‘evil’ infects his music, but Portillo was clearly unconvinced. For him, the message of the Ring is that power is the enemy of love. But actually he isn’t convinced by that either. Since being ousted from government, Portillo has been unable to get tickets for the Bayreuth festival, so what good is love?

This week on Art That Shook The World (Saturday at 7.20pm), Portillo-lookalike Mark Lamarr does Pet Sounds. No doubt leaping from Wagner to the Beach Boys like this gave someone somewhere a bit of a thrill – breaking down the barriers between high and low art, the daring, the iconoclasm! – but since the programmes are really about the effect of art rather than the thing itself, there is really nothing to get upset about. Brian Wilson was less ambitious that Wagner, and duly achieved less, but everybody likes close harmonies.

Interestingly Vivaldi Unmasked (BBC1, last Wednesday), while indulging in a lot of extraneous nonsense about asthma and eighteenth-century Venetian society, also paid more attention to the music than is usual on such programmes. Just a shame it had to be the Four Seasons.

Art That Shook The World has yet to feature a TV show, though a case can be made that TV drama is the new opera, or whatever. For example, the nightly screenings of Homicide on the Hallmark Channel confirm the series as an impressive and moving body of work. Of the current generation, 24 (BBC Choice, Sundays at 10.45pm) is shaping up nicely, making the most of its peculiar form to maximise suspense.

I have a friend who doesn’t watch TV, and even she watches 24. Granted, she is stuck a week behind the rest of us on BBC2, and admittedly she seems to miss all the important scenes, and true, she barely understands the bits she does see, but at least she recognises that this is a quality cultural artefact – she is a bit like a Polynesian tribesman in thrall to the beauty of an ornate crucifix.

Even more enigmatic is Six Feet Under (Channel 4, Mondays at 11.05pm), which suffers a little from self-consciousness. Much has been made of the fact that its creator Alan Ball wrote American Beauty – cinema being more esteemed as an art form than TV – and the opening titles are too damn long and cool (a vice Six Feet Under shares with The Sopranos). But the show is also hugely likeable.

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Six Feet Under is that it is really quite dull. Yes, somebody gets killed in most episodes, and there is a lot of sex, but Wagner it ain’t. It is essentially a drama about a family in mildly difficult circumstances. It just happens to be done very well.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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