Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds (2014)

bright lights

Thank heaven for BBC4.

Last week I was channel surfing and came across a handsome young guy in a nifty suit talking about be-bop in New York in 1951.   There are worse things to stumble upon.  The young guy was Dr James Fox (who I’d never seen or heard of) and the programme in question was the last episode in a three-part series called Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds which tells the stories of three cities in three pivotal years.  Through the wonders of catch up TV, I got to see the series in its entirety and, it has to be said, it’s a great reminder of the wonderful programmes that the BBC can make when it puts its mind to it.

I confess that I had not seen Dr Fox’s previous series, although no doubt I will watch should they get repeated – and, in the days of mult-channel TV, that’s highly likely, I’m sure.  Ironically, the whole premise of this series is a little dubious.  Vienna was discussed with regards to 1908, Paris in 1928, and New York in 1951.  It’s likely that those same cities could be focussed on in different years and a similarly worthwhile programme could have been made, but that’s hardly the point.  If you’re happy to put that small problem to one side and go along for the ride, there is much to enjoy and learn here.

I saw the series out of order, but that doesn’t seem to make too much difference, although perhaps the first programme was the best of the three.  With great skill, the viewer is taken on a joyride through Viennese culture in the early 1900s, from art to music to science to politics and back again – and cleverly underpinned with the reminder that Adolf Hitler was also persuing an artistic career in the city at that time.  Each segment based on a key figure cleverly manages to encapsulate the key elements of their work, but manages to do so without sounding like a list of “key points.”

Fox’s presenting style is energetic and enthusiastic without being gushing.  Perhaps most importantly, in all 180 minutes of the series, he educates without becoming either condescending or too intellectual, and certainly never becomes dull.  He seems slightly less confident during the section on the music of Arnold Schoenberg – a novice to the notion of atonal music is probably none the wiser by the end of it – but if that’s the biggest complaint about the series, then it’s fair to say it’s pretty damned good. And it is pretty damned good.   It’s clear Dr Fox has learned from the best.  There are moments when he’s discussing a painting by Klimt or Jackson Pollock in the same hushed tones and barely concealed enthusiasm as David Attenborough explaining the mating habits of a lizard found in the Amazonian rainforest. In a good way.

The Paris episode is probably the weakest of the three, but the one on New York more than makes up for it as it stunningly pulls together a number of disparate elements from advertising to baseball to Thelonious Monk and somehow makes them into a coherent whole which results in a rather mesmerising sixty minutes of TV.

In a sense, it’s a shame that the series was shown on BBC4 rather than BBC2, where it probably would have garnered a bigger audience.  What it does show is just how good the BBC still is at this kind of stuff.  The range of material we get from the BBC is still remarkable, and the quality is still better than any other channel.  Channel 4 used to give the Beeb a run for its money when it came to making documentaries but, while they’re now delighting viewers with semi-offensive crap like Benefits Street and documentaries about One Direction fans, the BBC are providing fine documentaries on the arts and remarkable seasons of programmes such as the BBC3 It’s a Mad World season from last year, probably the first season of programmes in the world aimed at young people about mental health conditions.

Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds is still available on the BBC iPlayer at the time of writing – and here’s hoping that a second series appears in the future.