How We Built Britain, BBC1, Sunday
ANY anecdote beginning with the words "He ushered me to a giant eggshell" is clearly going to be a corker. And, sure enough, the story of art critic Brian Sewell's first visit to the home of Salvador Dali didn't disappoint.
As recounted in Dirty Dali: A Private View, Sewell first struggled to converse with the Spanish surrealist and his deaf nymphomaniac wife while each sat in their own eggshell. He was then ordered to strip off and pleasure himself while posing around a massive prone effigy of Christ. And so he did, as you would, with Dali frantically photographing him and "fumbling in his trousers." Fortunately, we were spared exposure to these delightful holiday snaps. Sewell reckons there probably wasn't even any film in the camera, Dali being such a paradoxically prudish voyeur.
This richly personal account of Dali's life was full of such eye-popping anecdotes, and all the better for it. For example, a defining moment in Dali's young life was apparently when his father returned home one day and proudly announced that he had defecated in his trousers. No wonder the man had a rather skewed take on life. Sewell clearly relished recounting stories such as these, rolling rude words around his mouth like the finest of wines.
There were ripe tales of Dali paralysed with carnal rapture at the sight of blood, or "milking" guests on Bacchanalian weekends at his kitschy Spanish casa. But there was a deeply sad side to Dali, too, especially in his final years, following the death of his wife and muse, Gala. The image of a severely ill and desiccated Dali quivering in a wheel chair with tubes coming out of his nose, softly announcing softly "geniuses must never die", was one of the most depressing things I've seen in some time. But Sewell's rococo narration was a fruity delight (Dali's famous moustache was apparently "a delusory monument to an equally delusory virility"), and his critical analysis was as erudite and educated as you might expect. Dali was such a strange and complex man, any attempt to fully understand him is doomed to failure. Yet Sewell's personal relationship with the artist meant that he was capable of painting a fuller portrait than most.
Now here's something which positively defines Sunday-night viewing on the BBC: David Dimbleby in in Cambridgeshire, in a nice pink shirt, punting a rowing boat around the Isle of Ely, where the massive Ely cathedral stands. This was how the veteran broadcaster began his journey across the country in the first part of How We Built Britain, which is an attempt to map the development of this green and pleasant land by examining some of its most historically important buildings.
As expected, there were plenty of sweeping aerial shots of beautiful English scenery, and a rousing orchestral score to remind you that you were watching something very worthwhile and important. Luckily Dimbleby is an engaging and enthusiastic host, with an unpretentious presenting style perfect for relaxing popular history programmes such as this one. He simply got on with the entertaining history lesson while we admired the buildings (including a visit to the actual village of Dimbleby), although he did divert momentarily to bury a time capsule in Ely cathedral for future generations to examine.
It contained a Mars Bar, a packet of Camels, and a copy of the Radio Times turned to a page listing the Steve Martin comedy My Blue Heaven. Thanks Dave - they'll think we were all insane.