20 OCTOBER 2001, Page 77

Blurred lines

Simon Hoggart

David Hockney — Secret Knowledge (BBC 1) sounded like an item in a gossip column, but was a rare extant example of a disappearing beast, the BBC arts documentary. Hockney's claim was that from the 15th century on artists used lenses and cameras to project images which they traced around and, so to speak, coloured in. Hence the astonishingly lifelike detail found in the works of painters such as Van Eyck and Caravaggio. Hockney spoke as if this was a discovery on a par with e=mc2, though I gather from reviews of his book that the technique has been assumed by art historians for quite some time.

Perhaps, now he's reading History of Art at St Andrews, Prince William will be able to sort out this matter. Meanwhile, his university reached 40, the second lowest score ever, in this week's University Challenge (BBC 2). It would be unfair to judge any seat of learning by its performance on UC, since the choice of panellists depends on who gets control and puts his friends in. But for those of us who suspect that St Andrews is just a very cold finishing school, it was a strangely satisfying half-hour.

Hockney's programme was fascinating, partly because of his own hypnotic appearance. He looked and sounded like a cross between Les Dawson and John Birt. At times Les was in charge, then Birt got the upper hand. Hockney's own expertise made terrific television; Rolf Harris can do it, but it was much more fascinating to see a real artist at work. And he made some excellent points, showing how similar pre-optical painting was to the canvasses of Van Gogh, who worked after it had become possible to keep a permanent record of the camera's images. He predicted another change. 'We're now at the end of chemical photography,' he said, 'now we can manipulate things with the computer.'

And so we can, as Horizon — The Death Star (BBC 2) proved. This was an immensely complicated programme about astrophysics. It set out to show how e= me' might not be adequate to explain some phenomena; indeed, might even be plain wrong. Since less than 1 per cent of viewers were likely to follow the argument, it was necessary to manipulate things with the computer to an extent which would have greatly impressed David Hockney. A neutron star turned out to look like a translucent Faberge egg. Stars exploded, whole galaxies appeared and disappeared. Gamma rays destroyed the earth, causing gigantic tidal waves to sweep over cosy Mediterranean villages. A scientist then arrived to say that the chances of this occurring during the next million years were, 'happily, very small'. I was reminded of the tabloid papers during the present crisis. Articles headlined something like 'Doomed, we're all doomed' often end with a single paragraph saying, 'Experts said yesterday that this scenario remained highly unlikely.'

Since you can now produce any image by computer, the line between reality and invention becomes ever more blurred. Extinct animals? We've got 'ern, looking just as convincing as anything David Attenborough pointed a camera at. But even natural history programmes, such as Attenborough's The Blue Planet (BBC I), are less real than we think. Mating lobsters were filmed in an aquarium, or so we learned last week. And in any case, the shots of life at the bottom of the sea are quite unreal, since there is no light there except that imported by the television crew. Years ago, when I worked in Northern Ireland, Martin Bell was filming a loyalist riot. An angry Protestant woman banged his arm with her umbrella: 'You're photographing things

that aren't happening!' she shouted. I thought this was wonderfully silly at the time, but not any more. Photographing things that aren't happening is easy and commonplace. It's the future of television. As for art, there's nowhere to go, which is perhaps why people pay six-figure sums for Tracey Emin's lovers' names, stitched inside a tent.

It's fair to add that The Blue Planet has brought us fabulous images. and has been a quite fantastic success for BBC 1, getting far higher ratings than many soap operas. Good. It's what the BBC is for, accessible quality.

A show off-puttingly called 2DTV (ITV) slid into the schedules on Sunday night. It's a topical cartoon sketch show, a little like Spitting Image without the puppets. They crammed 19 sketches into an eight-minute, 53-second slot. Some of them didn't work so well, some were very funny. (A Teletubbies version of the war on terrorism sailed pleasingly close to the wind: 'Are you coming out to play today. Bin La La?') I loved Tony Blair haranguing his eldest son: 'My house, my rules, so just do as you're bloody well told. Yes, Euan, that's what I'm going to tell the Commons!' The show has the huge advantage of being voiced by, among others, Jon Culshaw and Jan Ravens from Radio 4's Dead Ringers. And if you don't like it, the news will be along in about six minutes and 13 seconds ...