Brenda Chamberlain

TV | Rolf Harris on Welsh Art: Brenda Chamberlain

Adam Somerset reviews the second series of BBC One’s Rolf on Welsh Art- “Brenda Chamberlain”. 

An artist who follows in the footsteps of a fellow artist is a good format. A practitioner has the knowledge of art’s making. Rolf Harris has insight into the craft. He knows how paint works physically; he can draw attention to a line in a drawing that works well. He is a good presenter who interviews with empathy. He has that authority of experience that the know-nothing celebrity presenters, so adored by documentary’s commissioning managers, lack. The thirty-minute programme from Mentorn is good-looking, cheering, revealing and confused.

The confusion lies in the approach to the artist. The reason for the programme is the art of the historic Brenda Chamberlain. In this pursuit, the programme sets the contemporary artist the challenge of creating a tribute painting. The process is fascinating, a portrait painted in the open air of Bardsey fisherman Ernest.

However, the programme offers glimpses of just nine of Brenda Chamberlain’s works. Cumulatively, their showing must account for thirty or forty seconds of screen time. It is not just this fleeting quality but the treatment. Close-ups frequently deny the full view of the work. Her haunting self-portrait is blatantly misrepresented by excluding the painting’s basic architecture. The programme’s inattention extends to the credits. The name of the distinguished art critic Jill Piercy is misspelled. Outsourcing is all very well as a management policy, but not where quality is compromised.

Rolf Harris on Welsh Art: Brenda Chamberlain review
Self Portrait on Garnedd Dafydd
by Brenda Chamberlain

The programme has several strong points. The interviews with Ceridwen Lloyd-Morgan, Christine Evans, Joy Ostle and Ann Cook are informative and affecting. The location filming in high summer shows Aberdaron and Llyn’s extremity at their most alluring. The use of historic photographs and some of the historic context is good.

The time spent on Bardsey is framed on either side by the worst parts. Time is wasted on an erroneous sing-song with some unconnected visitors on Bangor pier. An embarrassing scene is staged in a taverna along with cavorting Greek dancer. The script lacks force and enquiry. Jonah Jones, for example, is author of a good afterword for Seren’s 2007 edition of Chamberlain’s book ‘Tide Race’ He writes of her thirteen years on Bardsey that ‘she came to the island part-wounded in some way.’ The programme lacks an obvious writer.

This is one reason for the programme’s weakness. Secondly, the credits, run at their customary speed, appear to reveal a number of producers but no director. That omission may explain the lack of focus. A conflict of aims and balance is discernible, as to whether it is a celebration of a genuinely significant artist from Wales or a programme led, and sold, by an engaging contemporary name.

Menna Richards in the 2011 Welsh Political Archive lecture made the comparison with television in Scotland, observing that the ‘level of interest and engagement there is so much more intense.’  Doctor Who bursts with brio and confidence but at times Llandaff can feel like a branch office exuding a palpable lack of self-confidence. This has the air of a programme devoted to fine art about which the makers feel slightly embarrassed.

‘Rolf Harris on Welsh Art: Brenda Chamberlain’ is good, a tantalising insight into the art, but acts more as a taster. Parthian publishes Jill Piercy’s biography in May 2013. A dramatisation is being mooted. This programme excites a sense of anticipation for both.