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Arts | By Roger Lewis | February Issue

End of the pier show: Michael Portillo in Brighton in his Hidden History of Britain

Roger Lewis reviews Materchef: The Professionals, QE2: End of an Era, Portillo's Hidden History Of Britain, Hidden Wales With Will Millard, John and Yoko: Above Us Only Sky

There are plenty of good reasons to emigrate, chief among which for me would be the ‘See it. Say it. Sorted’ slogan, as parroted on platforms. I have no idea what it may mean, and the chumminess additionally grates.

Then there’s Jenny Eclair’s advertisement about her ‘bothersome vagina’, and the ointment she has happily found to fix this. But perhaps top of my list for wanting to flee from the room, and indeed these shores and renounce British citizenship, is Sean Pertwee’s syrupy, soupy, soapy and sickly voice-over on Masterchef: The Professionals. It irks me to death, oozes phoniness, and I long for Jennifer Paterson’s robust tones mocking vegetarians.

Like most things that are any good, The Fat Ladies’ advocacy for double-cream and red meat, cigarettes and whisky, is a thing of the past. I loved the glamour of that Sixties time-warp that was the QE2, for example. The documentary about the ship, QE2: End of an Era, reminded me of my own jolly time onboard. Craig Brown and I, with families, once spent a week crossing the Atlantic in a tempest. Glassware crashed to the ground, furniture was upended, and the purser was pinned to the wall by the photocopier. We adored the Fanny Cradock cuisine, with lots of elaborately coloured food. Piped, green, mashed spud is not something I’ll forget. As was said in this programme, the vessel was always ‘powered by nostalgia’ – ocean liner travel of the Thirties, initially, and by the end of the ship’s life, in the Nineties, there followed an anachronistic feel of the Age of Aquarius.

It was transformed in ten days into a troopship for the Falklands, and though the steam engines were converted to diesel at a cost of £120 million, the QE2 was starting to crack, fail and show its age. The ship is now in Dubai, where it has been left to rust. Plans to refurbish it as a ‘floating hotel’ have yet to come about.

It’s all similar to the fate of Brighton’s West Pier, as shown in Portillo’s Hidden History Of Britain. This beautiful Edwardian structure – Brighton’s West Pier, not Michael himself – fell prey to arson, vandalism and civic neglect. Saltdean Lido is also derelict, though there are ambitions to make a full restoration. Marvellous if this comes off. These elegant structures, underpinned by robust engineering, were vastly superior to any of the rubbish erected today.

It’s a similar story in Hidden Wales With Will Millard. Geeky Will, with his little earring, is as venturesome as John Noakes, climbing down cliffs, squeezing along narrow tunnels and into caves, to examine abandoned industrial workings left over from the war – secret bomb factories, chemical weapons research facilities, and other spooky locations. But Will is particularly good when it comes to architectural history, and Wales is littered with collapsing, mossy, Victorian-era fairytale castles, sinister hospitals and abandoned theatres.

Everything lovely in the Principality is in an advanced state of decay, not excluding my mother. Does no one notice? Does no one care? Instead of building disgusting housing estates on the green belt, why can’t someone with imagination renovate the extraordinary Brecon and Radnor Lunatic Asylum, which was abandoned in 1999? Will took us on a tour. The slates have been stolen and the wet is rotting the dining halls, ballroom and clock tower, but the site could be magnificent.

But I despair of my homeland – it must never be forgotten that Cardiff rejected Zaha Hadid’s dazzling opera house designs, and could have had a building of world-class importance. Instead they opted for a tacky rugby stadium, which they spell stadiwm. This would never have happened in Victorian or Edwardian Wales, when elitism was prized, not disdained. They also thought English was the superior language and culture – another good reason today to allow their buildings to fall down.

The John Lennon story is suffused with sadness, because we know what is coming – the fatal encounter with an assassin in December 1980. John And Yoko: Above Us Only Sky, containing never-before-seen footage of the white mansion, Tittenhurst Park in Berkshire – a white piano in white rooms – had a ghostly feel. Lennon bought the place, with its 99-acre garden, in 1969. He’d wanted to retreat from the public gaze and avoid any further ‘sibling rivalry resentments’ with McCartney. We saw the recording sessions for Imagine, George Harrison in the kitchen eating breakfast, Yoko sitting on the floor looking adoring, and John in person perched on the lavvy. His genius is only becoming more apparent, his death more terrible.

This story was from February Issue issue. Subscribe Now