In Bright Lights, Brilliant Minds: A Tale of Three Cities James Fox picked three different cities each in a single year of the 20th Century, and looked at how each was the focal point of cultural developments at the time. The first episode covered Vienna in 1908, the year Sigmund Freud revealed his Oedipus Complex theories. Many of the most notable artists or musicians of the day were in the city – Klimt, Schiele, Schoenberg. It was also a turning point for world politics, being the year when the Austro-Hungarian Empire annexed Bosnia Herzegovina. And Adolf Hitler was living in Vienna that year, he had come to study art but was rejected by the school. The politics of the day were perhaps formative for him, as Vienna’s mayor was very anti-Semitic.
Episode 2 looked at Paris in 1928, the last hurrah of a golden age between the wars before the Great Depression set in. And there was a lot going on in Paris at the time, for instance the surrealist movement (Magritte, Dali and so on) was taking shape. Gershwin was in Paris, Hemingway was in Paris, Cole Porter was in Paris. A lot of black Americans were also in the city, having come to fight in the First World War and preferring the way they were treated in Paris to back home. Many of these were musicians, bringing jazz to Paris. It was also the city where Mondrian was working on his minimalist paintings of lines and primary colours. And where Le Courbousier was planning to replace the old cluttered and chaotic buildings of the city with the architecture of The Future.
The third episode was about New York in 1951. Now when Fox opened the programme by positioning it as the place and time where much of modern culture was born we were a bit sceptical, but by the end of the episode he’d sold me on it. New York at this time was the birthplace of modern advertising, it was also where some of the enduring types of TV shows were born (live sports events, sitcoms). But it wasn’t just a city of conformist consumer culture, it was where the counterculture of the 50s was rooted. Kerouac wrote On the Road in New York in 1951, Pollack did some of his best work just outside New York that year, Thelonious Monk was playing be-bop and Modern Jazz that year. It was the city where the Actors Studio was, where actors such as Marlon Brando and James Dean worked on learning Method Acting.
I really liked this series, both the concept and the way it was made. I liked the visual style of the series, appropriately for programmes that featured a lot of art it felt like care had been taken to be artistic with the filming (not in an over the top way). And each of the episodes had a slightly different feel, to go with the different flavours of the cities in them. James Fox was a good presenter – I’ve not seen any of his programmes before and thought part way through this series that I should look out for anything else he’s done. It turns out I’ve already recorded two of the other things he’s done (A History of Art in Three Colours and A Very British Renaissance) so I’m looking forward to those.
Also watched this week:
Episode 4 of Treasures Decoded – Channel 4 series looking at puzzles and potential solutions around some well known archaeological sites or artifacts.
Kate Adie’s Women of World War One – a one off programme about what British women did during the war, and the difficulties and prejudices they faced in doing it. And also about how that taste of freedom and demonstration of their capability did change women’s lives in the future, no matter how much the establishment tried to return to the status quo after the war.
Episode 2 of Lost Kingdoms of Central America – Jago Cooper talks about four different ancient civilisations in Central America.
Episode 1 of Jungle Atlantis – two part series about new archaeological discoveries at Angkor Wat.
Episode 1 of The World’s War: Forgotten Soldiers of Empire – two part series about the soldiers from the Empires of the European powers who fought in World War One.
Episode 5 of Wild China – series about Chinese wildlife & people.