The Guardian 16 February, 2005
TV programs worth watching
Sun 20 Feb – Sat 26 Feb
There is the stuff of a feature film in part of the story of Rembrandt's huge painting The Night Watch. The painting, completed 1640 and 1642, was commissioned by a company of musketeers, or Kloveniers.
Formerly a civic militia responsible for maintaining law and order, their role was already largely symbolic by the time this particular company paid Rembrandt to paint their group portrait. Having their group portrait painted had been the custom among the militia companies for a couple of hundred years.
It was rather like having a class photo taken, and before Rembrandt that's how they were painted: the members of the company lined up stiffly, each given equal prominence with his neighbour, as static as any school photo.
Rembrandt, however, was an artist; he was quite happy to accept their money to paint this group of local merchants who enjoyed dressing up and parading around town as musketeers. But he was not prepared to paint them lined up in a row, as though - as one critic said - you could decapitate them all with a single stroke of a sword.
No, Rembrandt chose to paint them in an instant in time, at the moment of setting out on one of their ceremonial patrols. He painted them as a crowded group, some partially obscured by others.
He lit them unevenly (but so dynamically). He introduced additional people into the picture, people who were not in the company, including a little girl whom he made one of the main focal points of the painting.
The result is a masterpiece that is the very opposite of static. In fact, he painted a picture in which the main figures appear to be stepping out of the painting towards the spectator.
The painting is a splendid subject for this week's episode of The Private Life Of A Masterpiece (ABC 2.00pm Sundays). The program reveals many fascinating insights into the subject and technique of the painting, but it also reveals its extraordinary history.
Seventy years after it was painted, it was moved to a new location, where it did not fit. No problem, they simply sliced a strip off the top, the bottom and the right-hand side, and a very big strip off the left-hand side.
Two characters vanished altogether as did an important part of Rembrandt's composition that helped to give the picture the illusion of depth. Fortunately, a copy in miniature had been made for one of the subjects, so we can see exactly what has been removed. Vandalism is defintely the right word for what was done.
Today, the painting is an icon that epitomises Dutch culture. And the stuff of a feature film? That is contained in the account of the removal of the painting along with other works of art on the outbreak of war.
Hidden near the coast, the art works were removed from hiding, secretly transported across Holland and hidden anew in an underground vault, while the country was under German occupation!
This is a really good series, and this is a really interesting episode.
The Nile is the longest river in the world. It runs through a desert for thousands of kilometres yet never runs dry. In the 19th century, explorers and geographers sought to discover the source of this great river.
This forms the subject of this week's final episode of the excellent BBC series Nile (ABC Sunday 7.30pm).
It proved to be incredibly difficult. In the days before aeroplanes and satellites, if you wanted to find where a river began you either sailed up it or marched beside it until, hopefully, you arrived at the spring or mountain stream that was its starting point.
The Nile, however, was not navigable, flowing through an almost impenetrable swamp. Undaunted, the explorers struck out from the coast at right angles to the river, hoping to intersect either the river or one of the great lakes believed to be its source.
They were bedevilled by malaria and other fevers, warring local tribes, lack of food and extraordinarily difficult jungle terrain. In time the various expeditions discovered a startling number of large lakes, each new discovery seized upon as "the" source of the Nile.
The legendary Dr Livingstone was part of the search for the source of the Nile, as was the man who found him, Stanley. So too were Speke and the Bakers.
Baker had rescued a white woman from enforced prostitution by "white slavers" and married her. Now they came close to dying in the search for the headwaters of the Nile. (The stuff of another movie is in their story too, I feel.)
Each lake had to be explored to find its exit river, and then that river followed to see if it did indeed become the Nile. Stanley followed one river for 900 days until it emerged on the East coast.
He had explored the Congo River (with unfortunate results for the native population that were the subject of last week's program White King, Red Rubber, Black Death) but he had not found the source of the Nile.
It would be Stanley who finally understood the complex nature of the Nile's source, but it would be a hundred years before advances in the study of plate tectonics and other geological phenomena could explain why the Nile never runs dry.
This extremely well-made series maintains its high quality in the last episode, with high drama interspersed with occasionally breathtaking photography of foaming cataracts and bemused wildlife.
By now I need hardly remind you that there is another episode of Foyle's War this week (ABC 8.30pm Sundays). They only make four at a time, so savour it. Next week's is the last of the present series.