They’re repeating British Masters on BBC4. I enjoyed this series, and I salute James Fox for making the case for twentieth century British painting so fluently, and with such evident love. It has its faults: his enthusiastic proclamations were occasionally a bit painful (in his defence, we all make sweeping statements when we’re fired up, and the nuances of his arguments may also have been destroyed by heavy-handed editing – see below), but I’m just being picky: he handles his subject masterfully. It’s a smashing documentary on a neglected subject, and well worth 3 hours of your life.
The first episode – “We are making a new world” – includes two extended segments on Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer, both mini-documentaries in their own rights. I found his assessment of the Sandham Memorial Chapel, and Stanley Spencer’s own comments on it, quite poignant, as was his appreciation of Spencer’s self-portrait with Patricia.
The episode also includes two controversial scenes: the (admittedly) problematic segment on bad-boy Vorticist Wyndham Lewis, which got him into trouble with the Wyndham Lewis fan club (see what got their panties in a bunch, and JF’s sensitive 7-page reply/apologia here; it’s a sobering glimpse behind the scenes of documentary film-making), and the infamous bathhouse sexploitation scene in which a semi-naked James looks about as comfortable as a man sitting on a plastic hairbrush.
Overall, I could have done with a bit more on analysis, technique and materials (but that’s just my bag), and fewer lingering shots of JF walking and thinking and gazing out of windows (not because I don’t enjoy them, but because he’s easily good enough as a writer and presenter to hold our attention without director Matthew Hill using the poor man as eye candy; does he fancy him or what?) but these are just minor quibbles. Watch it! Then go and look at the paintings.