TV Viewpoint – Gogglebox and Portrait Artist of the Year

Portrait Artist of the Year 2013 Nick Lord with his commisioned portrait of Hilary Mantell

Like the Great British Bakeoff, and its Irish counterpart, reality shows are taking a step in a somewhat cosier and altogether more creative direction. Where in recent years these kinds of shows have been an exercise in exploitation, parading desperate souls on a stage in the sinister guise of making their showbiz dreams come true, sending Z-List celebrities into an Antipodian jungle so that vicious viewers can vote their most despised into performing increasingly degrading tasks, the revival of the likes of Masterchef and even Strictly Come Dancing has begun to turn the tides on gross out voyeurism.

One of my favourites of this new breed of show is Portrait Artist of the Year, on Sky Arts 1 on Tuesdays at 8pm. Currently in its second year, the presenters and judges visit four artistic centres in the British Isles in the hopes of finding an artist, professional or amateur, self taught or otherwise to be given the prestigious title as well as a £10,000 commission to paint a famous face and have the work curated in the National Portrait Gallery’s for a month before moving permanently to the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

It all begins in Edinburgh, where Scotland’s contestants are brought together in three groups to paint a well known personality in 4 hours. They are 12 chosen from thousands; each one has submitted a self portrait that the three judges have only up until now seen digitally. It’s interesting then to see them view the portraits for the first time in the flesh, so to speak. It’s surprising how many are different from how they were originally thought, most often in size or texture, and it always astounds me how different the approaches are; how much of the human spirit can be captured with a paintbrush. The process is repeated four more times; in Edinburgh again, London, Cardiff and Dublin, and each group is shown in great detail creating their work in the extremely limited time they’ve been given.

Presented with delightful enthusiasm by art lovers Frank Skinner and Mary Bakewell, they offer a layperson’s insight in great counterpoint to the expert judges; noted portrait artist Tai Shan Schierenberg, head of contemporary art at the Fine Art Society Kate Bryan and former director of exhibitions the the Royal Society and the National Portrait Gallery Kathleen Soriano. All five personalities talk to the artists throughout the sitting, getting to know their methods, becoming aware of their backgrounds and it’s truly fascinating to see each portrait come to life over the elapsed time.

Unlike those programmes where the result is a long, drawn out affair, this is succinct, no nonsense and to the point. Three finalists are chosen with just one eventual winner of each heat. It’s all so very good natured that it’s hard not to root for a favourite and get slightly disappointed on a contestants part when things don’t go well, but it’s pragmatic in facing up to the reality that some are better than others on the day, and there’s generally no bad feelings. Even if you have but a passing interest in visual art Portrait Artist of the Year is worth a look even just to take a break from the bitching and biting that’s on offer elsewhere.

So while I heap praise on the return to form of reality competitions, I must also draw your attention to the most meta of television programmes – Gogglebox. Shown on Fridays on Channel 4 since March 2013 it has quietly amassed a huge following and its popularity has exploded this year. If you remember The Royal Family fondly, and enjoy your own shouting at the telly sessions then this will be the show for you. Narrated by Caroline Aherne, creator of the aforementioned sitcom based around a family’s dynamics as they bathe in the glow of the box, this is similar, but well, real. It follows a number of families, couples and groups of friends, with a TV-eyed view of them as they comment on the shows they watch.

There are plenty of targets; The X Factor Results Show gets most of them fairly revved up, tears are drawn during David Attenborough nature programmes, opinions heard on Newsnight; it’s a genious concept – us watching them, watching us and could be entirely cynical if it wasn’t so much fun. There are loveable characters, hilarious interactions and surprisingly candid insights into the living rooms of the British public.

Steph and Dom, Gogglebox's Posh Couple
Steph and Dom, Gogglebox’s Posh Couple

One of the items watched was, of course, the John Lewis Christmas ad. I too have watched it, in fact because I record most things to watch later and skip over the ads I took the time to YouTube it, and it’s very cute, but isn’t it a little bit horrifying that we’ve started to mark the beginning of the festive season with a big business marketing ploy? Not unlike the Coca-Cola polar bears, the Cornflakes kids or “Penney’s, got a whole lot of things for Christmas, and a lot for the fam-il-y, fa la la la etc etc” it’s perpetuating the feeling that at the very heart of Christmas is gift giving. And of course it is a nice tradition, to go out of your way to give someone close to you a present that they’ll love, but it’s also a cause of great stress and anxiety for those who may not be able to give their little darlings everything on their list, leading to an unpleasantly early form of keeping up with the Jones’s once they’re back at school.

Mostly the ad is a pleasant tear-jerker, with a sweet little boy and his little penguin friend. Sainsbury’s has rivalled it this year with a highly manipulative (and hugely effective) film portraying the Christmas Day truce of World War One, which has done its job and gotten everybody talking. But I’ll leave you to Google that one yourselves.

Aoife B. Burke

First Published in The Tuam Herald on 19th November 2014

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