TOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 November 2008
This was an amazing series when first I saw it on the UK's Channel Five in 2003. Art critic and lapsed Catholic, Brain Sewell, agrees to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella in north-western Spain, travelling across France and northern Spain to visit its architectural treasures.
Brian - and I refer to him as Brian since, despite his plummy voice and airs, he comes across so matter-of-factly down-to-earth, even if he sounds condescending when talking "to the great unwashed" (to use his own term) - blandly states at the very beginning, as he drives his Mercedes onto the cross-channel ferry, that he is "a sceptical art critic ... a lapsed Catholic, even a lapsed Christian". He had made the journey forty years before, "but this time the journey turned out to be one of the most difficult of my life."
Aside from his role as an art critic, he is candid too about his personal history, remarking how he lost his virginity in Paris to a sixty-year-old grandmother when he was only twenty, and how he still thinks of sex every six seconds. Shamefully, we witness him succumbing to seasickness in Spain. In his seventies, Brian still has an innocence that charms.
But it's not long before Brian's caustic comments start to flow. Approaching the Calais skyline, he denounces French modern architecture "as the ugliest in Europe". And reaching Paris, we hear his views on the Sainte Chapelle (good), Notre Dame (OK), and Sacre Coeur (hideous).
Programme two sees him set out from Paris to the Loire via Chartres and Orleans. Along the way he has conversations with other pilgrims, and he is often physically moved by their experiences. As for himself, he says he feels a fraud, and "I intensely dislike what is happening to me." He now feels "uncomfortable and troubled" about his pilgrimage.
At Poitiers (programme three) he describes the church in memorable terms: "not much foreplay but a great climax". At Bordeaux he indulges in claret, but then makes the mistake of going to Lourdes, which he describes as "a Catholic Disneyland" - "Lourdes has convinced me that pilgrimage had descended into crass tourism." But Lourdes affects him nevertheless, for the look on his face when an English lady says she will light a candle for him, is the look of a man on the edge of faith. He admits to being caught off-guard, and of being ashamed of his disdain. But still, he is adamant that it is "a faith I USED to share."
Halfway through the series, he crosses the Pyrenees and enters Spain. (One wonders how much of the film is staged. Here Brian cries, "The sea! The sea!", but it is out of his left-hand window, not his right.) His embracing of some modern architecture is witnessed during a visit to Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum. Here he rightly concludes that modern art galleries are centres of modern pilgrimage: "art in its way has replaced religion." Like religion, art itself consists of "intellectual jokes", but there are a difference too in that art does not require the viewer to be good.
At Burgos (programme five), he wallows in the "orgies of decoration" in the cathedral. On to Laon via Fromista, but the church-crawling is taking its toll by this time, and our Brian turns his back on the cathedral - one church too many - and indulges instead in some rough young wine.
The final programme sees him give up his Mercedes and transfer to a horse. Finally reaching his destination, at Santiago his discussions with young pilgrims, the midnight fireworks, and mass next morning in the cathedral all combine and lead him to conclude "that something has penetrated my agnostic armour ... my tortured sceptical soul". Visibly moved, he is forced to turn away. But there is still one more ritual down by the sea to perform. Suffice to say, that I shall not give the game away, but full marks to Brian for bareing his soul (and more) to the watching millions.
Whether your interest is in art, architecture, France, Spain, pilgrimage, or religion, there is a wealth of formidable experience to be had by watching these fascinating and highly entertaining programmes, for what ultimately these programmes exhibit is a wealth of sheer humanity.
Alas, no extras. (What happened to all those outtakes on the cutting-room floor?)