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This week’s Big TV picks: Art That Made Us, Hacks, Slow Horses and The Andy Warhol Diaries

This week’s round up of the best new television serves up 1500 years of art, a Vegas comic on a quest to reinvent herself, and washed up spies.

Art That Made Us – BBC Two, April 6, 9pm

It feels like a long time since we had a heavyweight but accessible series on art. But this is properly comprehensive – beginning in the so-called dark ages and careering forward across eight episodes to these oh-so-enlightened times we call the present.

And guess what? It turns out the dark ages weren’t so dark but were instead a time of glittering art and extraordinary fusion, as cultures came together in the vacuum left by the Romans.

Antony Gormley – sculptor extraordinaire and creator of some of the best loved public art this century including the iconic Angel of the North – is very taken with the fifth century clay figure Spong Man. And it is quite breathtaking. The emotions conveyed in this simple pottery lid for a cremation urn, made by migrants from Northern Europe and Southern Scandinavia that was found in Norfolk and the earliest example of surviving Anglo-Saxon pottery shine through.

Antony Gormley in his studio. Credit: BBC/ClearStory/Menace
Antony Gormley in his studio. Credit: BBC/ClearStory/Menace

“The whole point of making something is in some way to communicate with somebody they may never meet– somebody who might live in a different continent, might live in a different Millennium. The potential of sculpture to have conversation with people who haven’t been born yet is an incredibly powerful thing for me,” says Gormley, as he unveils a modern-day,  “considerably more depressed” cousin to Spong he made during lockdown.

The series continues in this format. Bringing great artists and art lovers of today into close proximity with key works from the last 1500 years. The result is an artistic, alternative history.

Similarly, self-proclaimed (in The Big Issue, no less) not-for-profit actor Michael Sheen performs a seventh century Welsh poem of resistance against the Anglo-Saxons, Y Gododdin attributed to early Welsh Bard, Aneurin. It’s chilling. Beautiful. Is there a better performer of poetry than Sheen?

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Michael Sheen in his hometown of Port Talbot, where he performed The Passion. Credit: BBC/ClearStory/Menace
Michael Sheen in his hometown of Port Talbot, where he performed The Passion. Credit: BBC/ClearStory/Menace

The opening instalment also features artist Corneila Parker’s observations on the gold artefacts of the Staffordshire Hoard, fusing pagan and Christian imagery. Experts and academics shine more light on the chosen artworks – illuminating so much more than the works themselves. So with seven episodes still to come, This could be the finest BBC series on art since Robert Hughes made The Shock of the New in 1980. It is proper public service broadcasting.

Some might argue Art That Made Us is a vital reminder of the importance of arts education. Others might go on to question why the government has slashed funding for arts and design courses at UK universities and has slashed the budget for arts subjects in higher education – despite our arts and culture industries being so lucrative as well as inspiring.

More again may look at the world and the people around them slightly differently in the wake of this landmark series.

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Hacks – Amazon Prime

Hyped, lauded and loved on its release last year on HBO Max in the US, this dark comedy stars Jean Smart (Kate Winslet’s mum in Mare of Easttown, among many other great roles) as veteran Vegas stand-up comedian Deborah Vance, who must freshen up her material to reach a new audience. When she reluctantly hires young writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who has been cancelled for causing outrage on Twitter, sparks fly. It’s the kind of smart, funny, engaging series US television does so well – with characters fully formed, the jokes as sharp as they need to be for a show about comedians to work, and the slow drip feed of their backstories adding heft.

Slow Horses – Apple TV+

What a cast. And what a show from writer Will Smith (not that one). Apple TV+ is producing annoyingly good shows at the moment, meaning yet another potential outlay for TV fans. Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Freddie Fox, Jack Lowden, Olivia Cooke and Jonathan Pryce are quite the line up for a series about mediocre MI5 agents who have been sent to Slough House as punishment for major career catastrophes. These are the anti-James Bonds – scruffy, grumpy and world weary. New episodes of this thriller with a nice sideline in wry comedy are unleashed every Friday.

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Catch Up: The Andy Warhol Diaries – Netflix

More art! He’s been famous for way longer than 15 minutes, but the fascination with Andy Warhol is not going anywhere any time soon. His art may have been examined through every imaginable lens, though it continues to fascinate and speak to the times, but by focussing on the artist rather than the work (some might argue there is no difference) and using Warhol’s own diaries as a jumping off point, this new in-depth documentary offers a new angle on Warhol. The episode on Basquiat, an artist enjoying an overdue reappraisal in recent years, is particularly illuminating.

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