Budding artists, a very familiar TV format and Joan Bakewell at 85… Sky TV’s Landscape Artist Of The Year is a masterstroke of a series
The view from the top of London’s Greenwich Park is so expansive and busy that if you took out your phone for a snap, you wouldn’t know where to start.
But it’s here that the finalists of Sky TV’s Landscape Artist Of The Year have set up their easels in the attempt to capture the scene. Having seen off 1,497 competitors in the heats, this trio of painters are making their bid for the first prize of a £10,000 commission from the Royal Academy. This is art as competitive sport.
‘Artists, you have half an hour,’ announces the show’s presenter, actor Stephen Mangan, and a ripple of tension courses through the watching crowd as they wonder if the threesome – Greg Mason, Jen Gash and Alan Marin – are going to have time to put the finishing brushstrokes to the most important work any of them has ever undertaken.
The finalists were given five hours to capture the scene in London’s busy Greenwich Park Above: finalist Alan Marin
‘Today is very emotional. We’ve got to know these people, made friends with them,’ says Dame Joan Bakewell, Mangan’s co-host. She has been involved in the programme since its inception four years ago, and she has found herself caught up in its intricacies and invigorated by its drama.
‘When we started the series we had all sorts of ancillary activity to flesh out what we thought might be monotonous routine,’ she says of the hour-long show. ‘But the audience response has been that the art is the star.’
The artists are given a fixed time – five hours in the final – to produce a finished piece. As they work to deadline, they are under the scrutiny of up to a dozen cameras. They are routinely interrupted by Bakewell, Mangan and the three specialist judges, who ask them to explain what they are doing. With all the distraction, how anyone gets anything done, never mind produce the glorious work developing in Greenwich Park, is close to astonishing.
Artists are routinely interrupted by hosts Joan Bakewell and Stephen Mangan (both above) and the three specialist judges, who ask them to explain what they are doing
‘Joan and I and everyone at home has an opinion – that’s the fun of it,’ says Mangan. ‘But we have to be careful – it’s the judges who know what they are talking about. We’re there to make sure they explain their choices.’
One of the other joys of the show is the chemistry between the presenters, who exude a shared, infectious enthusiasm. And, watching Bakewell move smoothly between the competitors, gently joshing with the crowd and judges, it is impossible to reconcile the fact that she is now 85. She seems to defy all laws of chronology. ‘I’m still flying the flag for oldies on screen,’ she says. ‘There aren’t many of us. There’s David Attenborough, David Dimbleby… I’d have said Bruce Forsyth but sadly he’s gone now. I stick at it because I think we oldies need representation.’
In fact she reckons a huge swathe of the viewing public is not being served by TV’s obsession with youth. ‘There are lots of old people watching television that means nothing to them. I think there should be a channel just for old people – old movies, advice about knitting, recipes and comparative walking sticks.’
Before she can launch Silver Surfer TV, however, Bakewell has the task of bringing this series of Landscape Artist Of The Year to a conclusion. She declares that time is up, and the judges move in to make their choice. It won’t be easy: all three pictures are brilliant. Which is why Bakewell and Mangan are glad they have no part in the selection. ‘Never mind choosing them, I’m nervous enough just announcing the winner,’ she says.
The artists’ ability to create such glorious work despite the many distractions from presenters, judges and cameras is close to astonishing, Above: finalist Jen Gash
Across four series of presenting the show, Bakewell has only ever taken home one of the works she’s seen being created. It was of her, painted during the companion series, Portrait Artist Of The Year. ‘I keep it in the attic, Dorian Gray-like,’ she says, referring to the Oscar Wilde character whose hidden likeness ages while he remains eternally youthful.
‘That explains it!’ says Mangan. ‘I tell you what – it’s working.’
The power of art indeed.
‘Landscape Artist of the Year: The Final’ is on Tuesday at 8pm on Sky Arts and Now TV