TV REVIEW: David Bowie: Sound and Vision, Amy, War and Peace, Dickensian

James Waller-Davies
James Waller-Davies

Columnist James Waller-Davies gives his views on some of the recent events on television.

Overnight news from America always hits us in the UK at breakfast time. And so, just as December 8th 1980, I, along with millions, was jolted awake with the news that someone who helped define so much of our cultural landscape had died.

Sometimes you are just always going to know where you were and what you were doing when something happens. Monday 11th January at 7.05am, this week, has been added to the list.

David Bowie’s first hit, Space Oddity, hit its chart peak at No.20 in September 1969, the week I was born and his music has punctuated the intervening 46 years ever since.

I’m not usually slow to criticise the BBC, but the corporation’s response to Bowie’s death demonstrated why it should not be tinkered with too much, for all its warts and all.

David Bowie: Sound and Vision (BBC2), hosted by Jeremy Vine, with excellent contributions from 6Music’s Lauren Laverne and the BBC’s arts editor, Will Gompertz, was put together on the day ready for evening primetime.

It was the culmination of a day’s broadcast across TV and, especially, BBC radio which responded rapidly, reflectively and sympathetically.

Throughout the day, Radios 1, 2, 4, 5 and 6Music were devoted to Bowie’s life and music. The editing of Radio 4’s Today Programme, which broke the news, was especially nimble in altering its schedule. How many other people could engender such coverage across such a diverse range of channels?

Bowie was more than the sum of his eclectic musical parts. Many more expert than I have given their analysis of his genius. But for me, Bowie’s greatest achievement was to balance the paradox – one of many – of bringing the avant-garde into the mainstream, and by doing so broadened the mainstream’s appreciation of art. He challenged our boundaries; brought walls down so we could see further.

If Bowie’s death at just 69-years-old seems somewhat premature by today’s expected mortality, what can be said of Amy Winehouse’s ridiculously early end at just 27-years-old? This was the subject of Asif Kapadia’s gripping documentary, Amy (Channel 4).

There’s a very fine line between enquiry and voyeurism. Kapadia is one of the few current documentary filmmakers who can weigh the balance between the painfully private and the fatalistic tragedy played out in the glare of the public media. He gave a similar treatment to Ayrton Senna in 2010.

As a piece of film journalism, the access was exceptional, supplemented by the inevitable slug-trail of modern communications and social media that marks our every modern step.

Though it did provoke the thought that if so many people cared so much, how could such a vulnerable young kid be exposed to so much without sufficient help.

We like to believe we live in more enlightened times, but Winehouse’s death continues that uncomfortable lineage of too-soon music-star deaths devoured in our name by the media. When does voyeurism become complicity?

Back with Beeb and its continuing struggles with War and Peace (BBC1). Its viewing figures are holding up well at just under seven million, but these are the sort of numbers associated with soaps, which, alas, is what it is becoming.

Paul Dano’s Pierre Bezukhov is continuing his full array of adolescence strops and tantrums. Dressed up in his finest Tweedledumb costume, Pierre has failed to notice that his best pal, Tweedledee Dolokhov, has taken more than just his nice new rattle and has been polishing the dining table with the new Mrs Bezukhov, in the full knowledge of the grinning Moscow Cheshire cats.

There’s nothing particularly Russian about this War and Peace.It has blurred into the bland landscape that is the BBC’s dramatized nineteenth century. It could be Austen, Elliot, Hardy, the Brontes – costumed pouting and parlour games. Turn the sound down and you’ve seen it all before.

I have finally, quite literally, lost the plot of Dickensian (BBC1). It’s now become a game of scheduling ‘find the lady’. Tuning in to get the start, I just caught the ending, as last week’s 8.30pm became this week’s 8.00pm.

All I know is Compeyson is going to come to a sticky end. You can’t put a dog in sack and chuck it in the river on British TV and expect to get away with. Unfortunately, whenever he does get his comeuppance, it’s unlikely anyone will be tuned in to see it.