Friday, August 10, 2012

Review: Colonel Moseley reviews "Countdown" and "The Antiques Rogue Show" from 15.1.2009

This piece is taken from my reviewblog in 2009


Since the turn of the year, not much on television has captured my imagination – other than the new presenters of Channel 4’s tea-time institution, “Countdown.”

After the relative tension of the last few months under the former regime, both have made a promising start with Jeff Stellings personable, witty and competent and Rachel Riley charming and more-than-adequately numerate.

Rachel, in particular, has had to put up with the twitterings of our press comparing her with her illustrious predecessor in terms of performance and dress. I guess that goes with the territory and must be endured for the other questionable rewards of “celebrity.” One constructive suggestion however: if she is to continue to wear such attractively lofty high heels, the producers should consider raising the board a little, since her continued stooping to put up the letters may cause injury and give rise to a claim for some kind of work-induced, repetitive strain injury.

The Champion of Champions competition, with which the series started, did not afford much opportunity for her to shine at hard sums, since the competitors virtually always find the solution and, if they don’t, it’s often insoluble anyway. Her role should be more challenging with less brilliant competitors and may give more opportunities to shine as a maths wizz.

Most presenters without Tourettes, impaired hearing or hideous disfigurement could make a reasonable stab at either job, so hopefully the good ship “Countdown” will continue to sail on for many a comfy tea time with the new pairing at the helm.

Otherwise, apart from the excellent and informative “Victorian Farm”, my attention has only really been grabbed by the unfortunately punningly titled “Antiques Rogue Show”, both on BBC 2.

Written and directed by Norman Hull and billed as a “drama documentary”, it told the fascinating story of the Greenhalgh’s, who operated a high-end art forgery business from their home on a council estate in Bolton. Last year, the family were the subject of a similar pun-fest entitled “The Artful Codgers” in the entertaining “Cutting Edge” series on Channel 4.

The programme told the story of middle-aged Shaun Greenhalgh, played with a kind of brooding, mysterious matter-of-factness by Jeremy Swift, who lived with his octogenarian parents George and Olive (Peter Vaughan and Liz Smith) and a taciturn elderly aunt who knitted and watched, as though observing events at the guillotine.

From his humble shed in the back garden we see Shaun produce a headless statue carved from translucent alabaster. Equally importantly, his father George devised a plausible provenance and managed to sell what became the “Amarna Princess” to the Bolton Museum for £440,000 or so.

The principals are unfortunately not presented as entirely rounded characters. George is seen as wily and persuasive, but a nice old man, apt to wander off into repetitious tales of how he was wounded in the war. It is not wholly clear whether this was just a bluff to obfuscate cunning capable of devising credible provenances and the sang froid necessary to “sell” a variety of pieces to highly-qualified experts in museums and galleries all over the country.

Peter Vaughan carries off the portrayal fluently, but we are left with an enigma. Similarly Liz Smith oscillates between the dull housewife, uninvolved and frightened by the intrusions into her home and the cunning old lady well-aware of what was going on.

It seems highly possible that they both understood the whys and wherefores of their little cottage industry and that, for them, the safest and most effective course lay in giving the impression of a charmingly bewildered eccentricity.
Their son Shaun proved to be the greatest puzzle. We are not entirely certain as to why he lived with his parents in his late forties. The reflective scenes in the wood had a Dennis Potter feel, racked with unexplained angst and repression. He is touchingly presented as a large and unprepossessing child-man, deliberate in speech and amiable in manner, who clearly has a gift in replicating works of art of all kinds. As with his parents, this innocence seems at odds with the guile and calculation essential to become a successful forger.

One wonders what the motivation of the Greenhalghs' was to embark upon forgery on such a scale. Other than buying a car and funding low-key living expenses, the large sums received did not fund an extravagant lifestyle. The family kept themselves very much to themselves, although the impression was given that George had a reputation for tall tales and most in the local pub took what he said with more than a pinch of salt.

In some ways the answer to the question “Why do it?” was simply “Because we can.” The family seemed proud that they had the skills between them to make, document and sell the forgeries. Perhaps the money wasn’t really the issue; what they wanted to do was win the game.

Tellingly, at one point Shaun resentfully asked, “Would anyone buy my unmade bed or dirty knickers?” Here he encapsulated the main point that the play seemed to wish to make. In “Art” today “provenance” seems to be everything. The value of a work is determined by its provenance and that of its creator, not necessarily by its intrinsic merit. It could be argued that Shaun Greenhalgh in his shed on an estate in Bromley Cross to the north of unfashionable Bolton did not have the right provenance – even though much his work might have been just as good as the original.

The answer might ultimately be more prosaic. Perhaps Shaun’s only talent was to replicate and forge, albeit with skill and ingenuity. At his trial, his barrister reportedly said his client’s “one outlook was from his garden shed” and that he discovered many years ago that he had “no style of his own” and that “all he could do was copy.” He summed up Shaun’s career as a forger as “trying to perfect the love he had for such arts.”

The viewer was presented with the virtual genius apparent in a range of remarkable work, considerable élan in faking provenance and Shaun’s understated rage at the credentials and connection it took to succeed in the manifestly superficial and elitist art world. In the light of this, it doesn’t wash that Shaun Greenhalgh was just “perfecting his love for such arts.” He was making a point and getting one over on the shallow, London-centred art establishment. He and his parents may not have been clever enough to get away with it entirely, but they did so for a number of years. Together, they clearly proved a point.

Given the susceptibility of the art establishment to such fakery, one is tempted to wonder how many other of Shaun’s works might be in museums and galleries – and how widespread is the traffic in forgeries generally? What proportion of the art on display around the world is “genuine” – whatever “genuine” means?

More importantly, if a piece is created with skill and even genius, does its provenance really matter quite so much? These questions go to the very heart of both "value" and "values."

The upside of this absorbing and well-performed play was that it prompted so many questions; its frustrating downside was that it never really approached answering them…or did it?

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