Easter treats: Will Gompertz reviews the best lockdown entertainment ★★★★★

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter

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Easter treats

When I was 11, my father gave an LP to me by a middle-aged American man called Bob Newhart. I'd never heard of the fella. But then I'd never heard of Louis Armstrong before Dad introduced me to his exuberant trumpet-playing when I was seven. Nor Frank Sinatra, whom I first listened to on a cassette in the old man's car when I was five. They turned out to be good. Dad was in credit.

This was 1976.

The year the Sex Pistols played the Lesser Free Trade Hall in Manchester and the Ramones released their debut album. I could see from the record in my hand it wasn't that, but nor, thankfully, was it David Cassidy and The Partridge Family, which my sister played incessantly.

Onto the turntable it went: The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. Track one, side one - here we go.

What? No strings? That's a departure.

Perhaps Dad - a country doctor partial to a tweed suit - was edging towards a hipper minimalist sound. An MC introduces Newhart, followed by gentle applause, and then the main man takes the stage. He's not singing, he's not even playing an instrument.

He's talking. About advertising. Specifically, about a conversation between Abraham Lincoln and his PR advisor. The audience is laughing.

It's a comedy album! I hadn't known there was such a thing.

Thanks Dad.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The celebrated American actor and comedian Bob Newhart said: "Laughter gives us distance. It allows us to step back from an event, deal with it and then move on"

Newhart is funny guy.

His shtick is to play the straight man in an imagined conversation, the laughs are in the gaps your imagination fills - the other side of the call you don't hear leading to Newhart's responses, which become more and more surreal the longer the call goes on.

What is so striking about hearing it again (there's a lot of Newhart material online), is not that how well it has aged, but that nobody I know of is doing anything like it at the moment.

Not in comedy, at least.

Elsewhere, the one-way conversation is all the rage in our lockdown age.

Actors, musicians, and teachers are all generously giving performances and classes to unseen online audiences.

As are curators, the pick of whom this week is the softly-spoken Till-Holger Borchert of the Musea Brugge in Belgium.

He's inveigled his way into the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent to give us a tour of its fabulous Jan van Eyck exhibition, which was the must-see show this spring before coronavirus wrecked havoc.

The professionally filmed private view with Mr Borchert as our personal guide is nearly as good as the real thing, with the added bonus of his knowledge about one of the greatest painters of all time - the Leonardo of the North - whose recently restored Ghent Altarpiece (painted partly with his brother Hubert) is the standout star of this show.

Image source, Saint Bavo's Cathedral Ghent/Lukasweb.be
Image caption,
The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432 (better known as the Ghent Altarpiece), which was painted by Jan and Hubert van Eyck, is considered to be one of the world's most significant works of art

The Lake District landscape is the star of The Great Mountain Sheep Gather, a beautiful documentary that's airing at 19:00 BST on BBC Four on Easter Monday.

The setting is Scafell Pike, the tallest mountain in England, from which a herd of 500 sheep must be brought down for shearing by a foot-sore shepherd. We follow him up and then down again in a 100-minute observational film that has the courage to go at his pace, which is mighty slow.

The voice of Maxine Peake is heard from time-to-time, reading the specifically commissioned poetry of Mark Pajak, making for an elegiac programme the like of which I haven't seen before, but would happily watch again.

The scenery is spectacular.

Image source, BBC/Windfall Films
Image caption,
In BBC Four's The Great Mountain Sheep Gather we see a shepherd reflecting on life while caring for his flock

Having got into the slow, poetic zone, I'd recommend heading online to watch a film posted recently by the director and critic Mark Cousins in response to the bug.

It's called 40 Days to Learn Film, which you do in his two-hour 15 minute passion project that is an utterly charming, highly informative history of film, structured like no other, in which Cousins hops across decades, cultures, and genres with agility of a sheep on Scafell Pike.

It's brilliant.

Image source, Ciné-Tamaris/Rome Paris Films
Image caption,
A moment from Agnès Varda's classic film Cléo from 5 to 7, in Mark Cousins' 40 Days to Learn Film

As is Jesus Christ Superstar, the 70s musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, which you can see for free this weekend on the newly-established YouTube channel, The Shows Must Go On.

It's the 2012 cast with Tim Minchin and Mel C.

Image source, Courtesy of The Really Useful Group
Image caption,
Mel C acted the role of Mary Magdalane and Tim Minchin played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar

And finally, given the time of year, a steer towards the English Touring Opera, which is presenting Bach's St John Passion, free-to-see on its YouTube channel at 16:00 on Easter Sunday.

The intention had been to tour the production around the country and work with a range of players and choirs, but that's not possible now.

Image source, Andreas Grieger
Image caption,
English Touring Opera's performance of Bach's St John Passion

Instead, we'll get to see and hear a hybrid production that consists of film from a recent show at the Hackney Empire in London, some rehearsal footage, and contribution from regional choirs that helps fully fill the soundscape.

I think it's going to be wonderful.

Happy Easter.

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