Friday, 24 June 2011

The Couch Potatoes Go To Britain

Today we are taking the Magic Flying Couch to some of the world's most fascinating museums. Are you sitting comfortably? Then we'll depart. Where's the remote? Ah, of course … it has gravitated into the hand of the only male person in the room. As remotes do. Please press PLAY, good Sir, and transport us to London!

The Museum Of Life is a six-part BBC series that deals with the scientific work that goes on behind the scenes at the wonderful Natural History Museum in London. Anchorman Jimmy Doherty goes behind the scenes with the people who are uncovering secrets, solving mysteries and making discoveries among the 70 million items in the historic collections.

During the series, Jimmy gets to grips with Darwin's finches and Dippy the Diplodocus. He makes field trips with the experts: sky diving for butterflies in Costa Rica; prepping submersibles in Loch Ness; visiting archaeological digs in exotic places.

For me the real star here was the museum itself. It is one of those amazing Victorian public buildings that look like cathedrals. (Only think of St Pancras railway station!) The terracotta tiles and bricks used in the construction feature superb relief sculptures of flora and fauna.

The huge vaulted entrance hall with its sweeping staircases and gothic arches easily contains the 26 metre diplodocus skeleton affectionately known as Dippy. It would take more than the tourist's fleeting visit to see even a fraction of the wonders along the five miles of corridors, but this DVD makes a good stab at whetting the appetite. When next you are in London, put the Natural History Museum near the top of your Must See list!

The Treasures of Britain takes the Magic Flying Couch on to Oxford and Cambridge, where we can inspect some of the treasures in the Ashmolean and Fitzwillam Museums.

The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford is one of the world's oldest museums. This DVD looks at four of the museum's most treasured artifacts. We hear the fascinating stories behind the Egyptian Pharaoh Taharqa's temple shrine from Nubia and the beautifully decorated Octopus Jar from the ancient Palace of Minos on Crete.

I have seen the Alfred Jewel described in many art and history books and films, but I didn't realise that this is where it lives. It is one of the most precious Anglo-Saxon objects in existence. It dates from the 9th century: exquisitely made of gold and cloisonne enamel, it encloses a portrait of King Alfred covered with a transparent piece of rock crystal. A thousand years old and still beautiful! Not unlike Catherine Deneuve.

The Hunt in the Forest by Paolo Uccello was his last painting, made around 1470. A centrepiece of the Ashmolean collection, it is an early example of the effective use of perspective in Renaissance Art.

Cambridge University's Fitzwilliam Museum houses a world famous collection of art and antiquities and offers a stunning introduction to the world's most creative cultures. Here too, we are shown four of their most important pieces.

A rare 13th Century Gothic manuscript that once belonged to the sister of Louis IX of France has the most exquisite illuminations. I don't know how those old monks did those tiny masterpieces, without any of the materials and lighting that we take for granted today.

I found a three thousand year old set of Egyptian coffins made for a high ranking temple official in Thebes intriguing, but my favourite bit of this DVD was the two paintings: Titan's sensuous 16th century masterpiece Tarquin and Lucretia and Degas' haunting picture of two prostitutes, At the Café.

My friend Maarten once remarked that during the years the English owned the earth, they stole everything in it and put it all in the British Museum. He was wrong: they put some of it in the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam!

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