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Portrait or Bust (1994)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Portrait or Bust (1994)
BBC, tx. 4/4/1994, 50 mins, colour
DirectorJonathan Stedall
Production CompanyScorer Associates
ProducerJonathan Stedall
ScriptAlan Bennett
PhotographyMike Fox, Tania Hoser
MusicIan Butcher

Presenter: Alan Bennett

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Alan Bennett's personal view of art in general and Leeds City Art Gallery in particular.

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Alan Bennett's second collaboration with veteran BBC documentarist Jonathan Stedall was this delightful, typically idiosyncratic blend of philosophical reflection, autobiographical reminiscence and acute observation.

It was inspired by a 1993 National Portrait Gallery commission of a formal portrait of Bennett by the artist Tom Wood. Sitting in Wood's studio, Bennett muses on his attitude towards the process, and towards art in general, confessing at an early stage that he has always been somewhat puzzled by the medium.

Although billed as an exploration of Bennett's favourite paintings, he only makes a tentative attempt at actual art criticism, more often seeking sanctuary in wryly observed anecdote. He subtly mocks his own ignorance when he describes asking the artist Duncan Grant the somewhat crass question of whether he was envious of other paintings. "Titian, sometimes", was the perfectly judged reply, with its implicit rebuke to Bennett for being so shallow - though this doesn't stop him going on to muse about the lack of body hair in depictions of Christ on the cross.

But there are also more substantial sections: a tribute to Jacob Kramer (1892-1962) incorporates a deft verbal sketch of the history of Leeds' substantial Jewish community and Bennett's own memories of witnessing blatant anti-Semitism at school. Similarly, Atkinson Grimshaw's painting 'Park Row' reminds Bennett of the Leeds of his youth, before planners in the 1960s remodeled it (to his disgust).

Although primarily filmed within the Leeds City Art Gallery (though he also takes a trip out to nearby Temple Newsam, where the gallery's paintings were evacuated during the war), Portrait or Bust is also an affectionate portrait of Bennett's home city and its people. While attacking politicians for their obsession with cost-benefit analyses, he praises ordinary Leeds-dwellers in general and his beloved old ladies in particular for the way they seem unfazed even by the most challenging avant-garde works.

Art, Bennett believes, is like television: most galleries are still free, so people visit them for a wide range of reasons, but often end up receiving more than they may have bargained for, just as one may switch on the television entirely casually but end up gripped by an unexpectedly involving drama. The observations in Portrait or Bust are rarely more profound or challenging than this, but they don't need to be: Bennett's favourite artists, as one might expect, are those who knew how to connect with the people around them.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. A reluctant model (2:17)
2. Succour or smut? (3:09)
3. Jacob Kramer (2:56)
4. Genoa, Florence,... Leeds (1:24)
5. Wartime tram ride (2:02)
Bennett, Alan (1934-)