Monday, 11 July 2011

Fake Or Fortune, BBC1

In Fake Or Fortune Fiona Bruce and an erstwhile Antiques Roadshow colleague Philip Mould tell the stories of four specific paintings. As the title suggests though, the works are shrouded in sufficient mystery to string out hour-long programmes. Can a work ostensibly by Monet be proved as such to the satisfaction of the market's kingmaker? How did a watercolour by Winslow Homer come to be found at the side of the road twenty years ago? How can one work out if a painting is a 17th c. original or a faker's reproduction? And will a modest, grubby old-master-like canvas lead back to Nazi looting?

As you can tell these are four intriguing and really rather differentiated narrative for the four programmes to explore. The vernacular takes its lead from the Antiques Roadshow series but becomes much more complex and technical, exploring the peculiarities of forensic science, connoisseurship, the strange parallel world of the art market, and the stories of the art works themselves. Charting a course through it all are Fiona Bruce, amplifying her usual repertoire of emotional reaction to counterbalance the potential aridity of the industry (and aided by an inexhaustible supply of different coloured leather jackets).

She needn't have laid it on quite so thick though, as her partner in the project, Philip Mould turns out to be TV gold. He has that curious mix of the engaging-yet-knowledgeable that marks out the experts on the parent show and manages to work it into the genuine, ongoing documentary storylines of the series. He also has some great theatrical flourishes - wiping white spirit on a putative Rembrandt is a performance of particular swagger. He also manages to bring in some super experts who (remarkably) aren't afraid to give their opinions to camera without undue prompting, something that strikes me as very unusual and perhaps further testament to his charisma. Chief among these is his desk-bound right hand man Prof. Bendor Grosvenor, a sort of young Spock to Mould's Shatner-Kirk; brisk, pragmatic and wrangling a formidable 3D vdu-database to make his points, like in some latter-day Bond movie.

The 'key talent' apart, the series is successful for two reasons. Firstly, the stories are so diverse. This is not just four identikit shows in which the investigative team have to prove that a painting is authentic (although authentication is a key component part of each episode). Secondly the drama of investigating the nebulous background to each painting throws up real drama, muddying the idiom of the show as it moves across the spectrum of conventional documentary: one moment Mould or Bruce will be saying pre-recorded words to camera clearly out of continuity in order to make their show work smoothly; the next they are responding to drama at an auction house or a customs check point which must be handled in real time.

I have really enjoyed the series, made with someone like myself in mind - an amateur, keen to know more about the issues of the industry and the valuable works that are its currency, not averse to the use of natural melodrama to help midwife the information.

There is one question that was never asked, let alone answered though. Perhaps this was for good reason, as it would have been quite a red herring to grapple with. And that is - were any of the works of art featured any good?

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