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TV Quickshots #8

TV Quickshots

The Victorians (2009; BBC)

Subtitled Their Story in Pictures and presented by BBC veteran Jeremy Paxman, The Victorians is an engaging and intermittently insightful examination of the society, culture, values, and above all the aesthetics of Victorian Britain through the rubric of art, architecture, and more quotidian forms of expression like photography, dress, and drink. Paxman, known for his abrasive current affairs programs and confrontational political interviews in Britain (he once famously asked then-Prime Minister Tony Blair if he and then-President George W. Bush prayed together), seems to relish the opportunity to unwind and slip on a cloak of pleasant affability.

Alright, honey. You win. We'll watch "The Notebook" tonight. Please get off the rug.

The host talks his audience through visions of Victorian home life, social convention, foreign empire, industry and commerce, and nature and spirituality presented in the now rather deeply unfashionable paintings of late 19th-century Britain. If Paxman cannot match the art historian’s rigour and lightning-bolt interpretive epigrams that fellow BBC grandee Simon Schama unleashes in his superb Power of Art series, then he manages to cover more ground and have a bit more fun. Paxman bounces around the British Isles, touring edifices as diverse as Scottish art museums, ornate London sewage pumping stations, Oxford’s museum monument to natural history, and the neo-medieval Cardiff Castle. He picks up some seance tricks from latter-day mesmerists, samples absinthe, gazes at century-old photographic negatives, and blushes hilariously at the sexualized delight of a lady whose period corset he helps to tighten.

More so than Paxman, however, the art of the Victorians is the four-part series’ star attraction. Highlights include the fairy paintings of Richard Dadd and the famous work of the Pre-Raphaelites like Rossetti and Waterhouse (dissolute hippies of their day), but the more everyday images constitute a more complete panorama of Victorian life. Days at the races, a quiet card game in the parlour, or the rippling exertions of hole-digging labourers are rendered with vivid complexity in these paintings, and Paxman points our eye to just the right spots and lets us drink in the painterly detail. The Victorian Era is so much more often understood through its literature in general and its expansive social concern novels in particular (Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, etc.) that a perspective on the cultural reality viewed through the lens of its art is refreshing and often a little surprising. The first episode, which explores how Victorian Britain grappled with the unprecedented urbanization of the era, is embedded below, and the subsequent three episode are available on YouTube as well.

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