Daytime TV: Bored to death

Both the art of dying and of Andy Warhol leave Gary Day feeling distinctly underwhelmed

October 8, 2009

BBC Four decided to liven up the autumn schedule by devoting a whole evening to programmes about death. You could have watched all of them and not been any the wiser. For what is there to say except that we are all going to kick the bucket? A strange phrase. Apparently it refers to a method of suicide. You stood on an upturned bucket, tightened the noose and then kicked away your support. But it could also refer to the practice of slaughtering pigs, who were hoisted over a "beam" - an old word for bucket - before having their throats cut.

Who knows if either of these grotesque departures from this great stage of fools were really the origin of that euphemism? But one thing is for sure: if we can't be certain about matters of life, how the hell can we know anything about death?

As if to prove the point, Dan Cruickshank rambled for an hour without saying anything (The Art of Dying, BBC Four, Wednesday 30 September, 9pm). He started by wondering why we care about work and relationships, and why we entertain hopes and dreams, when we are all going to die. Well, Dan, these things give shape and meaning to our lives, that's why. If we all behaved like Archbishop Chichele, who spent 20 years contemplating his demise by kneeling in front of his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral, the dishwasher would never get emptied, would it?

Dan stared at a cadaver in the University of Cambridge anatomy department. It had a tag on its toe. It was the colour of putty. The camera lingered on its hair, ears and nails. But what was most disturbing was that it could not return Dan's gaze. Even if someone ignores us, they are acknowledging our existence, but to be in the presence of a corpse is to be totally blanked.

Dan shuffled off uncomfortably. He looked at some paintings to see if these could help him come to terms with death. A "doom" picture depicted the dead drifting skywards to be judged. And can you see there, in that corner? A king being led to eternal damnation. The moral that Dan drew from that little detail was that we must rid ourselves of vanity.

Soon after, he asked Nick Serpell, who writes obituaries for the BBC, to pen one for him. Nick obliged. It contained words such as "knowledgeable", "enthusiastic" and "charming". But Dan was not happy. He had hoped for more, which just goes to show how hard it is to shake off the sin of pride.

The programme expired with an announcement that The Open University has produced a free booklet that helps us to make sense of the end of life. If it had produced a guide for the beginning and middle of it, I might be interested, although it would be equally useless.

Andy Warhol, who showed just enough animation in life to prevent himself from being carried off to the morgue, was much obsessed with death. He took to framing newspaper photographs of the dead and dying. "It was so avant-garde," gushed an admirer. Films of a blow-job and a man slapping a woman were hailed as "innovative".

His film Trash (1970), which contains scenes of intravenous drug use, was both "innovative" and "avant-garde". His fans were in danger of running out of adjectives to describe his brilliance. Andy liked to see how far people would go in front of a camera. If he had made a snuff movie, and probably only his lethargy stopped him from doing so, they would have had nothing to say.

But then neither did Andy. Judging from the snippets of interviews shown in Alison Jackson's film (The South Bank Show, ITV1, Sunday 4 October, 10.15 pm), he seemed to have mastered the words "yes" and "no", and sometimes used them in a way that made sense, but the rest was silence. His followers mistook his reticence for profundity and his pictures for art. Alison explained that his serial portraits were based on icons of saints, as if that made endless images of Elvis Presley any more appealing.

Great claims were made on behalf of Andy. His work was a brilliant satire of commodity fetishism; his films redeemed the misfits who appeared in them; and he showed that through the image we are all immortal. But all this guff was just an excuse for Alison to promote her own art, which "blurs the boundary between the real and the imaginary". Boris Johnson did just that when he walked into the Queen Vic in Thursday's episode of EastEnders (BBC One, Thursday 1 October, 7.30pm). His hair looked just like Andy Warhol's.

In comparison with all the urgent discussions about the meaning of celebrity and art, Unreported World (Channel 4, Friday 9 October, 7.30pm) was very boring. It just showed Amazon tribes uniting against the oil companies polluting their land. Some real people got killed.

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