Daytime TV: Hidden depths

Gary Day is gripped by Jeremy Paxman's analysis of Victorian paintings and the latest drama on Mrs T

March 5, 2009

"Victorian painting," stated Jeremy Paxman, was "the cinema of its day", an analogy no insurer would touch because it would break as soon as you breathed on it (The Victorians, BBC One, Sunday 9pm). There are no annoying adverts for Orange in an art gallery. Nor is anyone cracking popcorn. And William Holman Hunt's The Light of the World is a lot more restful on the eyes than Hellboy 3.

Who is writing Jezza's script? He tried to convince us that Franz Winterhalter's painting The Royal Family (1846) was no different from any other portrait of a middle-class couple with their children. "Oh, come on," as he might himself say to any politician spouting tosh. "You don't expect people to believe that?"

But maybe that's Jezza's way, to provoke the viewer into actually looking at the pictures by making the occasional outrageous remark about them. A deliberate gaffe to make our gaze more deliberating. And if that fails, he falls back on sex. Queen Victoria "enjoyed married life to the full" he smirks. That the Victorians enjoyed a bit of hanky-panky is hardly news. But it wasn't the sort of thing they were going to hang on their wall.

The grand inquisitor certainly wasn't fooled by the myth of the happy home. William Frith's portrayal of his family in Many Happy Returns of the Day (1856) was a sham. The artist had a mistress and several other children.

Holman Hunt's The Awakening Conscience (1851-53) demanded that a few men rouse theirs instead of infecting their wives with syphilis; a fate that befell the patron saint of cooks, Mrs Beeton.

Holman Hunt's picture of a young woman rising from the lap of Pan in striped trousers shocked contemporaries. It "is drawn from a dark and repulsive side of domestic life" fumed the 19th-century equivalent of Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells. He would have spontaneously combusted if he had lived to see Jezza tightening Rosemary's corset. And she a vicar's wife, too. Rosemary showed the grand inquisitor her collection of 19th-century outfits. "This could have been engineered by Isambard Kingdom Brunel," she purred, running her hand over whalebone. Victorian women were confined by clothes as well as culture.

But attitudes began to change. G.F. Watts' Found Drowned (1848-50) presented the fallen woman in a compassionate, even heavenly light. Jezza proved to be an acute observer in his descriptions. Art critics, beware.

Richard Cottan picked up the theme of the fallen woman in his brilliant drama Margaret (BBC Two, Thursday 9pm), starring Lindsay Duncan as Mrs T, the woman who tried to revive Victorian values. The opening shot had her looking in the mirror. This was not vanity, this was an identity check. As we learnt later in the play, she always felt her parents wanted a boy. She had to be taught how to be a woman and, on the evidence of this film, never learnt how to be a mother to her daughter.

Her father, Alderman Roberts, took her everywhere. She listened to the talk of grown-up men, "always men". She felt small looking up at them in their suits, smoking their pipes, jangling their change. She felt that way in the House of Commons until, as principal frontbench spokesman on fiscal and tax policy, she routed Denis Healey, Labour's Chancellor of the Exchequer. Ted Heath was next. She marched into his office to tell him that she intended to stand against him. After that, we saw her doing a lot more marching, her troops struggling to keep up with her.

Occasionally she would stop and tear off a chunk of flesh when one of her pack wavered. "You want me to share a platform with Heath?" she snarled at Geoffrey Howe, "I beat him! I beat him! You don't make deals with your enemy. You destroy him." Howe was cowed. But she would pay for humiliating him.

Mrs Thatcher was no Hamlet. Taking arms was always the preferred option. Slumber? That was for weaklings like Peter Morrison, her campaign manager. Probably the only Tory ever to use a bed for sleep.

Britain's first woman Prime Minister fell prey to lesser men; but she had always known that women were expendable. She was frequently seen looking out of windows - a metaphor for her being cut off not just from the party but the country.

The acting was outstanding, although false eyebrows were not enough to turn Philip Jackson into Bernard Ingham. Beautifully crafted and superbly written, this was television drama at its best. But there is a danger in seeing the tragedy of politicians as being more worthy than the tragedies they cause.

The much-hyped Law and Order: UK (ITV, Monday 9pm) was inferior in every respect but one - it recognised that there was such a thing as society.

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