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John Boland's week in TV: Mary's new series lays bare the troubling problem of the male gaze



Bare art: Mary at the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge for Mary Beard's Shock of the Nude on BBC2. Photo by Polly Alderton

Bare art: Mary at the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge for Mary Beard's Shock of the Nude on BBC2. Photo by Polly Alderton

BBC/Lion Television Ltd/Polly Al

Bare art: Mary at the Museum of Classical Archaeology in Cambridge for Mary Beard's Shock of the Nude on BBC2. Photo by Polly Alderton

Mary Beard's The Shock of the Nude (BBC2) would have been a good deal more engrossing if it hadn't been preceded by Art on the BBC: The Story of the Nude (BBC4), which rather stole its thunder.

Indeed, Beard, who's England's best-known classical scholar and has become the British media's go-to spokesperson for feminist comment on everything from rape to royalty, had already featured on the previous night's BBC4 show, where she said much the same things she was to repeat the following evening.

Her observations in her own show had a lot to do with the "male gaze" that determines how we look at images of women - a phrase that risks losing its impact through overuse, though some women may argue that it can never be used enough.

And so Beard employed it numerous times, noting that Titian's Venus of Urbino depicted "a passive naked woman as the object of an erotic male gaze" and wondering "how for so long men got away with it".

This was good stuff and Beard was similarly provocative throughout this week's first instalment of a two-parter, but more fun was to be had in the previous night's The Story of the Nude, in which art historian Kate Bryan used the BBC archives to show how various art experts have approached this vexed and vexing subject in the past.

These included the lordly Kenneth Clark of Civilisation fame and the earnestly enthusiastic Andrew Graham-Dixon of more recent times, though a couple of these male pundits might wish to go unnamed today for some of their comments: Velázquez's Rokeby Venus having "the most smackable bum in western art", for instance, or those female buttocks where "you can almost hear the sound of Courbet's hand slapping them".

So yes, Mary Beard provides a necessary and timely corrective to such sexist twaddle, though in the process she tends towards making heavy weather of her polemical task. But she's a lively presence and raises lots of intriguing observations and ideas.

There was nothing lively about the first instalment of Herstory (RTÉ1), a series that sets out to look at the lives of six Irish women who were notable in their day but are now largely forgotten.

Lady Mary Heath, who began life as Sophie Mary Peirce-Evans in Newcastle West, Limerick, in 1896, became "one of the most famous women in the world" through her exploits as a female aviator, achieving global renown when she flew solo from Cape Town to London in 1928.

Indeed, there was more than enough in her daredevil life to warrant an arresting documentary, but this, alas, was a dutiful trawl in the manner of a midweek Nationwide offering. There could have been real poignancy to its story of failed marriages and to a decline into alcoholism that saw this woman dying alone and unknown after a fall in London, but the film was so intent on cramming in its facts and in telling you how great she was that it never evoked such feelings in the viewer.

I trust that the next five instalments will eschew the puffery of this opener and provide some insights instead.

The final episode of Dr Eva's Great Escape (RTÉ1) was something of a con job. The viewer had the right to expect that a series about the building of a weight-loss hotel in the Algarve would end with the job done and the project up and running, but not a bit of it - instead a final caption announced that the hotel was due to open this coming May, with the voiceover-narrator declaring that "this journey is far from over".

But why were we watching it if not for some resolution to be reached, whether in the completion of the project or concerning the state of Eva and Wyatt's marriage? Indeed, halfway through the episode, the narrator had warned us that their future as a couple was "on the line", but that was the last we heard about that.

So are they still together? I haven't a clue, though towards the end when she couldn't face turning up at the party being thrown for their friends and Wyatt commented that "we have our ups and downs, many downs recently" it was reasonable to wonder.

Why then didn't RTÉ insist on these matters being resolved before transmitting the final episode? Or does the viewer, who'd been asked to spend three hours with these people and their project, not matter?

With Joaquin Phoenix and then Prince William taking The Baftas (BBC1) to task for its lack of racial diversity, the event should have been more interesting than usual, but it turned out to be the same old orgy of self-regard, with even Graham Norton failing to spark in his unfunny intro. Ricky Gervais really does know how to handle these love-ins.

But I enjoyed the previous night's Bafta: Life in Pictures (Sky Arts), an hour-long stage interview with Hugh Grant, who in recent years has become one of the most interesting of English actors, abandoning his former floppy-haired persona with brilliantly quirky turns in Florence Foster Jenkins, A Very English Scandal and Paddington 2.

In interview he was engaging, too, nonchalantly couldn't-care-less and self-deprecating and very droll, too.

And while you await the imminent final season of Homeland, you might have a look at Baghdad Central (Channel 4), a tense and often brutal thriller with Waleed Zuaiter excellent as a former Iraqi police inspector whose daughter has vanished and who must deal with the occupying US and British forces in order to find out what has happened to her.

Indo Review