(images from my trip to the Serpentine gallery)
Is it just the Brits or do all nations collect National Treasures with such zealousness, bordering on the obsessive.
For those not in the know these are not objects, artefacts or grand architectural masterpieces, let alone historic monuments of which we have many. No, these are of the human kind, they are all living and they are usually aged.
Maybe it is the reverence with which we purport to regard things, a throwback to the (halcyon) days of absolute monarchy and religious observances, to class and place. Even in today’s celebrity paradise where fame can arise simply by having a social media account and a way with selfies, we can identify, amongst the chaff, a number of worthy candidates who, generally, are held in the sort of regard that avoids the tall poppy decapitations that other, prospective candidates will have to endure. It is not that they are scandal proof, merely that the scandals have to be of seismic proportions to shake the foundations of their Treasurehood.
And the involvement of a Treasure in a project is usually a guarantee of decent reviews or maybe better reviews than would otherwise flow to the piece or performance. Roll out a Treasure to front a charity gig and you’re guaranteed a better return than otherwise.
This was brought home to me recently by two events.
First I went to see Dunkirk. The reviews weren’t special but they all said that Mark Rylance’s performance was stellar.
Ken Branagh did a turn as a sailor and Harry Styles, he of a minor musical majesty with One Direction was surprisingly good.
Recently I saw Churchill and later in the year another Churchillian piece of cinematography will hit our screens. So Rylance is already a Treasure – he has a gong and a long list of splendid credits from stage and increasingly screen. Branagh less so but there’s still time – if he hadn’t divorced Emma Thompson , another nearly Treasure, he might be there already. Styles isn’t and thus scandal might yet undermine him but this is a good start. But what of the War? It’s beginning to feel, if it wasn’t already true that this fixation with those grim and glorious six years is some form of National Treasure. Appear in a film of the War and it’s a tick in the box.
The film? It was ok. The time lines were disjointed, the Spitfire scenes relatively unbelievable and clunky – there’s one section when the last Spitfire, out of fuel and about to land on the beach at Dunkirk flies low along the shoreline. It was obviously staged, maybe some green screen. It felt like something from a 1960s blockbuster. And the story itself so well known that nothing new, no new insights were revealed. Part of me, brought up on the rightness of the fight, the heroics of the flotilla of little boats turning a clear defeat into some sort of glorious withdrawal, cheered but another part wondered at the French, defending the withdrawal with little hope that they would get away. Weren’t they the heroes here? Really? Oh well, I think I’m tired of the expectations that we should keep cheering these narrow parts of our past without seeing a wider perspective – how the hell the generals got us into such a mess for instance. But still, there’s always a Treasure to keep our spirits high.
Maybe I didn’t go for it in a big way was because we had the ice cream at home, having been ripped off the last time. It’s not the same, whatever we told ourselves…
The second event was an Art exhibition. A few years ago – a very few indeed – and a man who likes to dress as a woman would be the last person who would be elevated to Treasure status. Ditto a gay man. Stephen Fry is a Treasure and so is Grayson Perry. Articulate, happy to explore their own weaknesses – Fry’s dissection of his bi-polar disorder was a powerful and painful piece of TV – we embrace them, at a certain level of wonder, and we thus congratulate ourselves on our tolerance. Yes, we say, we can have such people as Treasures. Are we tolerant? Maybe.
There are some people of colour appearing in the Treasurehood these days – Sir Trevor MacDonald maybe; Lenny Henry? Not many black women outside of the sporting sphere – Dame Kelly Holmes, Dame Jessica Ennis. Not many Muslims for sure. A fair few women though – Helen Mirren, Julie Waters to name two.
I know, I know this is so subjective and you may well have additions and deletions that will (I hope) fill the comments. But the grand thing about Grayson joining the Treasurehood is we get exhibitions like that at the Serpentine Gallery.
It just stops you and makes you think – about belonging and masculinity and all sorts of elements that make up society. And he has an extraordinary way, for one so patently out of kilter with any sort of standard set of behaviours, in engaging people from all walks of life.
He oozes empathy with a curious intellect.
Some time ago, following the success of the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 objects they invited Grayson to select objects from their collection and interpret them, look at the craftspeople behind them.
Have a look at what he came up with
I spent two hours thinking, pondering, reassessing.
Unlike with Dunkirk, I reviewed rather than viewed.
A Treasure reinforcing his status rather than propping up a old conceit.
That’s what Treasurers should do.
Use your place to take the envelope and don’t just push it: kick it down the road.
Though so far as the Top Treasure is concerned, just carrying on being. Sir David Attenborough will never be replaced.