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TV review: Masterpiece is no work of art

DO YOU remember Sister Wendy Beckett, the nun who became an unlikely television celebrity in the 90s through a series of art history documentaries for the BBC?

Viewers took to Sister Wendy because of her infectious passion for her subject. There was also something hugely refreshing about the incongruous sight of a consecrated virgin, who'd spent most of her life in a cloistered environment, enthusiastically and unblushingly delineating the finer points of a nude painting or statue.

Watching Masterpiece: Ireland's Favourite Paintings, a clumsy attempt to pique the wider public's interest in the art treasures sitting under our noses, I couldn't help thinking RTE might have been better off adopting the Sister Wendy approach by simply finding a knowledgeable art enthusiast and letting them loose in a series of documentaries.

Instead, Masterpiece, presented by Mike Murphy, who along with his various incarnations as variety star, gameshow host and travel broadcaster also hosted The Arts Show on Radio 1, is an awkward and slightly patronising marriage of convenience between the elitist and the populist.

This is a public vote to find Ireland's best-loved artwork -- a kind of Operation Pigmentation, if you will. Over the next few weeks, the 10 shortlisted works will be discussed every Thursday on Pat Kenny's radio show, while guests on RTE1's arts programme The Works will make the case for individual pieces. The winner will be unveiled by President Michael D Higgins next month.

"These are your paintings," stressed Mike Murphy, before introducing short profiles of each piece, and indeed they are -- although I suspect most of us are guilty of not appreciating them enough. I know I am.

I loved studying art at school and did well enough to consider going to art college rather than hack school. But in the years since then I've spent more times at rock concerts, in cinemas or simply sprawled in front of the TV than in galleries.

While I'm all for programmes that get people thinking and talking about art -- and, who knows, maybe even attending the National Gallery once in a while -- reducing its indefinable appeal to the subject of a crude, X Factor-style competition is the wrong way to go.

One problem with Masterpiece is that the 10 works have been chosen in advance not by the public, but by nine experts "and one enthusiastic amateur", namely Murphy himself, which immediately cancels out the notion of a free vote based purely on taste, not to mention copperfastening the notion that art is for the elite, not the masses.

You could argue that there's no other practical way of doing it, given the sheer quantity and variety of what's on offer in our galleries. But if you can't do a thing satisfactorily, why do it at all?

I won't be voting.

Chris Birch used to be a 19-stone, beer-swilling, rugby-obsessed, skirt-chasing, red-meat heterosexual. Then he foolishly decided to do a forward roll down a grass verge, snapped his neck and suffered a stroke. When he woke up, he discovered he fancied men and not women.

As we learned in I Woke Up Gay, the only one who believes Chris's story is Chris -- or Kris, as he now styles himself. Everyone else -- his estranged mother, the friends who turned their backs on him, the neurologists who say that while strokes can cause personality changes, they can't alter sexuality -- believes Chris/Kris was always gay and used the stroke as a route out of the closet.

Even the man he's about to marry, Jak (who presumably used to be Jack), is sceptical. Chris/Kris contacted an old flame to confirm his former straightness. "I would never have openly said you were gay," she told him, which sounded a bit non-committal.

Despite all this, he says he's happier now than he's ever been. Isn't that enough?

Masterpiece: Ireland's Favourite Painting 2/5

I Woke Up Gay 2/5