TV review: The Madness of Peter Howson | Dispatches: City of Fear

The Madness of Peter HowsonBBC2Dispatches: City of FearChannel 4

IT'S often said that we need to see artists suffer for their craft. Why? Through some misguided belief that great art emanates only from demon-wrestlers? That there is something darkly romantic about the self-destructive poet, the mad painter and melancholy clown?

I've always been uncomfortable with that. It strikes me as a crude appropriation of mental anguish for our own prurient, vicarious ends. I dare say it wasn't deliberate, but the BBC Scotland documentary, The Madness of Peter Howson, occasionally subscribed to this unfortunate notion.

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Although the celebrated Scottish artist spoke candidly about his mental illness and the addiction to drink and other drugs that almost killed him, the narration by Peter Capaldi laboured the fragility of Howson's condition in a way that at times felt unnecessary.

Otherwise, this was a fascinating profile of one of the world's most collected living artists, as he struggled to complete a specially commissioned work as part of the renovation of St Andrew's Cathedral in Glasgow. A depiction of the martyrdom of St John Ogilvie, the piece was intended to be the largest crowd scene in the history of British art. But through a mixture of financial, mental and creative setbacks, Howson eventually downsized it considerably.

I just wish the programme hadn't framed his turmoil within the "will they/won't they succeed?" constraints of your typical challenge documentary: leave that to Grand Designs.

The energy and assurance in his work stood in stark contrast to his lugubrious, dishevelled, self-deprecating demeanour. Diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, he spoke forlornly of his humiliating record of nave business dealings, where his trusting nature cost him millions in potential earnings. Yet he is clearly driven by a cathartic desire to create, rather than make money. "The reason why I draw is to remain sane," he said, "because it keeps me on the right track."

He also recounted his harrowing experience as Britain's official war artist in Bosnia, and the dramatic near-death religious conversion which later saved his life. But what could have been a bleak wallow in one man's private hell was leavened by his dry humour and vulnerable charm, not to mention the pleasure of watching a great artist in the throes of creation.

There was little light to be found in Dispatches: City of Fear, an eye-opening account of the incessant terrorist threat plaguing Pakistan's capital, Islamabad.

Filmed over one turbulent year, it followed police and citizens as they struggled to oppose and come to terms with indiscriminate attacks from Islamic extremists. With 3,500 people killed in suicide bombings in just three years, Islamabad has been forced to accept these attacks as a horrifying fact of life.

Fatally under-resourced, the police have no way of counteracting the enemy beyond rounding up suspects and "interrogating" them for leads.This sobering report reiterated that we in the West have no comprehension of the realities of modern terrorism. "We have a 9/11 and a 7/7, if not every day, every second day in Pakistan," sighed a retired army major whose wife was murdered in a suicide attack.

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The people of Islamabad are trapped in a harrowing nightmare. Their resilience is humbling, but how can they be saved?