Daytime TV: Rude awakenings

Kafka, the porn connoisseur - he's a laugh; but after trips to Italy, Gary Day finds Walford a tad depressing

December 4, 2008

We think of Franz Kafka as never having been published in his lifetime, being poor and having problems with women. Wrong, says James Hawes in his entertaining short film of this most enigmatic novelist and short-story writer (Kafka Uncovered, BBC Two, Tuesday 10pm).

Nor, adds Hawes, as he bent over us, was his father a tyrant. Hermann Kafka, a self-made businessman, simply couldn't see the point of his son's stories until he got paid for one, and then it all made sense.

Once again, I found myself looking up at Hawes. Was the camera being held by a hobbit? No, he appears to be wearing high heels. And turn-ups. On jeans. I haven't seen that since 1973.

James swung a wrecking ball at more myths. Kafka did not live in poverty; he had an apartment that is now the US embassy in Prague. And far from being ignored, his writing was well reviewed and even won a prize.

But Hawes' most thrilling discovery was Kafka's collection of pornographic drawings published in a magazine called The Amethyst. He showed samples to various Kafka enthusiasts. "Can I keep this copy?" asked one.

We need to find the truth about Kafka if we are to read him properly. And how is that, exactly? As a humourist and social satirist. That made me sit up. Kafka funny?

Yes indeed, said Hawes. When Kafka read the opening lines of The Trial, the story of a man arrested and executed for no apparent reason, he and his adoring audience were paralysed with hilarity. German is obviously a much funnier language than I realised.

Andrew Graham-Dixon showed that he likes a joke in Travels with Vasari (BBC Four, Wednesday 9pm). He said, "Good Morning Giorgio" to the artist's self portrait, bowed before a Rubens and couldn't stop laughing at a painting of an artist trying to escape from his still life. Graham-Dixon's guide was the taciturn Rita, who was not amused.

Vasari's Lives of the Artists is full of fabrications, including the story of the murder that never was since the perpetrator died two years before his alleged victim met his bloody end. But Graham-Dixon is much more relaxed than Hawes about such inventions. Fiction, he informs us, can be a way of getting to the truth of a work. Fra Filippo Lippi may not have abducted a nun to gratify his lust, but such tales highlight his sensuous rendering of the female form.

Graham-Dixon states that Lives is "the most important book about art ever written". It shows that artists are more than craftsmen; they are visionaries and the story of art itself is one from darkness to light. Just as Hawes made me want to read Kafka again, so Graham-Dixon made me want to hop on a plane to Florence to see Donatello's sculpture of The Penitent Magdalene.

Even from the confines of the television screen it has an unsettling effect. Look at the left eye and it stares right back; look at them both together and they gaze straight past you. No wonder it stunned those who first saw it. How did he create such a figure? Was he a magician?

This week, the Dorrit family found themselves in Venice (Little Dorrit, BBC One, Wednesday and Thursday 8pm). I half expected Graham-Dixon to be there to greet them. "Why can't you be more like Amy," I asked the daughter, "and be more attentive to your dear papa?"

"Because she's a drip," came the instant reply. She has a point. Little Dorrit, played palely by Claire Foy, endures all criticism of her goodness without a murmur. Her father, the touchy William Dorrit, acted with just the right degree of delicacy by Tom Courtenay, despairs of her ever being a lady.

So, too, does Mrs General, the magnificent Pam Ferris, who rolls her eyes at Amy's failure to grasp the basic principle of conversation; that it is "not the unburdening of the soul but the exchange of correct opinions and sentiments".

It is also the art of insult by apparent compliment as ably demonstrated by the tight-lipped encounter between the two hairstyles of Mrs Merdle (Amanda Redman) and Fanny Dorrit (Emma Pierson).

Libby drew up a list of conversation topics for her mother, who is dating her first husband, in EastEnders (BBC One, Friday 8pm). It included global warming, economic meltdown, the breakdown of community and Third-World debt. Her efforts were acknowledged, but ignored. Mostly the characters sigh a lot, as would anyone who had to live in Albert Square.

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