Bob and Roberta’s Excellent Protest Adventure review – all slogans, no substance

Bob and Roberta Smith – AKA the artist Patrick Brill – enlisted the help of Billy Bragg, Noam Chomsky and Roger Scruton to explain how modern protest works. But his uneven, scattergun approach led to an irritating hour

Now, you should know how I feel about modern art. I feel as Jack Donaghy in 30 Rock feels. Art is paintings of horses or paintings of ships, and anything else can GTFO. You should also know, before we begin this review of a modern artist’s programme about the history and effectiveness of public protest, that I feel protest requires a basic belief in the goodness of people and the capacity for change and progress. In my current mood, therefore, as I watch the US’s first black president trying to steel himself to hand over leadership of the free world to a man endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, I feel that it – along with every other solitary thing in this entire godforsaken world – is a little pointless.

Except, of course, many would say Donald Trump’s election was the result of a protest vote. Ditto Brexit. But this was not a programme interested in complexities, and so we must move, as it did, swiftly on.

My point is that it is possible that I approached Bob and Roberta’s Excellent Protest Adventure (BBC4) in the wrong mood, in need of something no programme could deliver. But this uneven, underdeveloped, scattergun look at the phenomenon might have been quite an irritating hour in even the most cheerful of circumstances.

Bob and Roberta Smith (real name Patrick Brill) is a lifelong protester and known for his slogan art (brightly painted, unmemorable phrases, such as “We’ve only got each other” done on placards made from scrap timber). In the 2015 general election, he stood against Michael Gove in his Surrey Heath constituency, in protest at the former education secretary’s marginalisation of the arts in schools. Last night, he darted around the globe talking to practitioners and philosophers of the art of protest so disparate that it was impossible to discern any pattern, meaning or message in the whole.

Individually, there were moments of interest and enlightenment, such as Billy Bragg insisting that art alone is no use: “It gives you a different perspective on the world, but it has no agency; it’s a signpost. Only the audience can change the world.” Or Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine, now a political activist who has been playing anti-Trump gigs outside pro-Trump rallies. “The message that’s going to be happening inside the arena,” he said, as Smith ran to catch up with him at Cleveland, “is a message of thinly veiled racism, a message of thinly veiled misogyny, an open call for war crimes as foreign policy … We have a countervailing message out here on the streets which is about human rights and resistance to oppression.”

But for every one of those, there were hapless interviews that elicited nothing meaningful from people including Noam Chomsky, Roger Scruton and – to give a measure of the strange, unfocused nature of it all – Bez (formerly of Happy Mondays, now an anti-fracker and believer in “free public transport, free food, absolutely everything really”), all accompanied by Smith’s nervous, grating laughter.

There was no sense of chronology, no unity and no analysis, unless you count such profoundly wrong remarks as “I don’t particularly like Farage,” (says Smith, cheerfully) “but he is a consummate performance artist”, or “America is founded on an idea of free speech – this land is your land, this land is my land and that’s what every American thinks.”

I would like to protest at this wasted hour.

Iain Glen is back for a third series as the eponymous Galway gumshoe in Jack Taylor: The Guards (Alibi). If you can get over a plot (spoiler alert) that remains as unconvincing as his accent, it was a good-enough way to while away 90 minutes. Cody has been replaced by a supremely annoying tai chai-ing cousin of Kate’s from Manchester, a hallucinating girl is trying to kill half the county, and it has the kind of script in which everyone does everything because someone took everything away from them and so they are going to take everything away from them because of – oh, you know. Everything. It wins Narrative Implausibility of the Year, however, with the news that the parents of two murdered sons do not require the woman who is finally revealed to have set events in motion to be punished. One family suffering is enough, apparently. OK. Why not? It’s not as if the real world makes sense any more either, is it?


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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