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‘There’s just a great sparkle there’: A chat with Bakewell and Mangan

Pals, neighbours and Landscape Artist Of the Year co-hosts Joan Bakewell and Stephen Mangan are broadening our horizons and looking to brighter days ahead. We join them for a chat

Before or after a storm, some calm is required. When The Big Issue dials into a Zoom call with Joan Bakewell and Stephen Mangan, they immediately start chatting like excited school children about the breaking news coming in about the Georgia Senate seats.

“You see the Democrats are likely to take Georgia?” says Bakewell.

“Amazing,” Mangan fires back. “By the narrowest of margins again.” 

Of course, hours later a mob of Trumped-up insurrectionists would storm the Capitol in what would become the most chaotic day in a chaotic age.

Which is why we need Landscape Artist of the Year in our lives. The biggest hit on recently free-to-air Sky Arts, the show has been boosted by a year of lockdown when we’ve sought solace in more leisurely pursuits and ached for any glimpse of wide-open spaces, be they painted, charcoaled, crocheted or otherwise.

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Broadcast legend, Labour peer and past Big Issue guest-editor, Bakewell, 87, and the charming, affable Mangan, 52, present with easy camaraderie, turning them into TV’s oddest yet most endearing couple.

We chat about the secret behind their onscreen and offscreen relationship, the importance of the arts, ageism, cake and Zumba.

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The Big Issue: I know this is Landscape rather than Portrait Artist of the Year, and that you are not painters, but if you were to create a portrait of each other, what attributes would you want to emphasise?

Joan Bakewell: I would go to town on Stephen’s great black curly hair. I think I’d start there, and I might stop there! It’s never the same twice. I don’t know whether it has any shape deliberately. I think its absence of shape is deliberate.

Stephen Mangan: The backwards-through-a-hedge look.

JB: Carefully calculated. Rather like Boris, but better-looking.

SM: I am such a hopeless artist, if it looked even vaguely like Joan I would be absolutely delighted. But I’d try to capture her zest for life, her indomitable spirit, her understated intelligence. She’s incredibly smart and well-read, but she never makes you feel that you are her intellectual inferior, which I definitely am.

JB: Not true!

SM: There’s just a great sparkle there.

You both appeared on an episode of Have I Got News For You in 2013 – was that the first time you met?

SM: I think it was. Richard Osman was the other guest.

JB: That’s right.

SM: Even though we lived on the same square for several years it was the first time we met.

Did you hit it off from the start?

SM: It’s not a very natural setting to meet someone, you’re all trying to think of incredibly funny and clever things to say about the news. We didn’t really get to know each other until we started doing Artist. We live about 100 yards from each other, don’t we?

JB: Stephen is my point of contact. Are we allowed to have our coffee in the square? I don’t think we are, are we?

SM: I think you’re supposed to go out only for essential trips, to exercise or buy food or whatever. I don’t know if having a coffee and celebrating the win of the Democrats in Georgia… Maybe that is essential, who knows? You are allowed to meet one other person outside your household to exercise outdoors. So we could do a Zumba class on the square.

JB: Yes, would you like to masquerade as my trainer?

SM: Yeah, I’ve still got my leotard from drama school somewhere. Mangan the Motivator. Anyway, I know we should be talking about painting.

Landscape Artist of the Year hardly mentions the pandemic, and everybody is distanced anyway – it’s so refreshing to take a holiday from the situation, even if only for an hour.

JB: There are people running around with long sticks and pushing us apart.

SM: It’s filmed on a beautiful summer’s day, we’re all boiling hot with a lovely pastoral scene. That’s the joy of the show to me. And watching a creative act unfold in front of your eyes – you can’t watch someone write a novel or compose a symphony, but you can watch a painting come to life in four hours. It’s just made for television.

JB: One of the things about lockdown is how many people have taken up painting. It really is extraordinary.

Have you?

JB: Yes, badly. Something I’ve learned, I don’t know if you’d agree Stephen, artists are rather serene people. They find a restfulness of the spirit. Playwrights, I’ve known one or two, can be very tense and neurotic and anxious about their work. But artists have to be extremely… you would now say mindfulness or whatever, they have to be very calm while they’re actually doing the job. They may step back and have a temper, but actually, it’s a very serene activity. And I think that’s why it’s rather pleasant to watch.

SM: Yes, because they’re really looking, really properly looking. Which, if you’re screaming with anger or teary or whatever, you’re not. If you’re overly emotional it can make the world less vivid. It’s fascinating to see what they see.

JB: They concentrate very hard. We have a lot of people who brings shreds of fabric, and cut-outs.

SM: That’s fun on a windy day.

In lockdown, could we benefit from having that artist’s perspective to deal with a time of simultaneous boredom and busyness?

SM: Joan and I kind of represent the two ends of that scale, of what lockdown has been like for the country. I’ve got three young kids…

JB: All boys.

SM: And it’s like running a short order restaurant and a small zoo here. I dropped my four-year-old off at nursery this morning for the start of term. All the four-year-olds skipped into the nursery and then all the parents turned around and skipped even more joyfully down the road back home. I’ve never been busier. And Joan…

JB: I’m on my own. I’m isolated. I have a bubble with my grandson and that’s it. But I Zoom a lot. I Zoom with my family every day to give me support, really, to have someone to talk with. So they are very different worlds. My life is full of books and watching television – I’ve got halfway through your William Boyd.

SM: Good, good.

JB: Cooking is a bit like painting. A lot of women – I’m not being sexist I hope – certainly my friends have been cooking more often. One of them sent around a lovely honey and almond cake. She said: “You need a surprise, I’m sending a cake.” I think quite a lot of people, including myself, are getting fatter.

SM: I heard the other day you either become a hunk, a chunk or a drunk. I’m now trying to become a hunk, cutting out the chunkiness and the drunkenness. That’s where our Zumba classes will come in handy. I mean, I think for some people it’s been a chance to pick up brushes or instruments they maybe haven’t had the time to before. For others, the thought of having four hours to paint? I just don’t know where I would find that time at the moment. It is polarising, isn’t it? It’s the claustrophobia of the experience that’s tough. Our worlds have  all shrunk.

JB: Yes, I’m like that. The first lockdown, I used to drive to Regent’s Park, just when all the roses were coming out. That counted as exercise, I was entirely on my own. I did see one or two other lonely old ladies looking at the roses too. We avoided each other. Every week, the rose garden was different and that was a great pleasure. It’s not quite the same yet, the buds aren’t coming out on the trees so it’s a bit harder to enjoy.

Does the success of the show prove the importance of art and the arts in our cultural lives?

JB: Absolutely. I’ve always been a champion, I was the chairman of the National Campaign For The Arts, I was an arts journalist for long swells of time. And Stephen, of course, he’s deeply committed. I mean, he’s a writer and producer as well as an actor. He’s got a novel coming out – how’s it going? When’s it coming?

SM: June it’ll be published.

JB: So we ourselves like to think we’re quite creative.

SM: Art is important. We’re celebrating the fact that there is a lot of talent out there. [Artists on the programme] they’re not running the 100 metres. There’s not an objective standard about who won, or who was best. There’s always room for debate. I think part of the fun of watching Landscape and Portrait should be to disagree. One thing I’ve learned is that your opinion is valid. You don’t need to have a degree in art history to have a valid opinion about a work of art. It’s OK to disagree with the judges. Throw things at the TV if you have to.

JB: And we often disagree with them. We’re very discreet, but we sometimes raise an eyebrow. There are a lot of people who would be very pleased to have such an interesting job in their eighties because people mostly are written off. The phone stops ringing, nobody thinks to ask them and the fact that the company who runs this had the idea of using me, that’s a really remarkable thing to have done. It’s a pity more people don’t do that. I know loads of people in their eighties, bright as anything, with lots of energy, intellect, and also the wisdom of age. They don’t get these opportunities. I’m enormously grateful to them. I keep telling them, “I’m staying as young as I can!”

SM: You’re in your eighties – and you’re a woman! On television how many are in that club…

JB: There’s Gloria Hunniford. Who’s married to Richard Madeley, how old is she?

SM: Judy Finnigan, no…

JB: She must be late sixties possibly. [She’s 72].

SM: Same birthday as me, Judy. A bit of trivia for you there. Not the same year but the same day.

JB: David Attenborough is just a bit older than me. But he used to be my boss so I see him occasionally from time to time.

SM: By the way, how many series has he? He has a new one out every five weeks! His output is just getting more and more prolific. It’s amazing.

JB: Well he’s not making them at the moment, I can tell you that. He’s staying home. But whenever we see each other, he says, “Are you still working? Keep working.” That’s the thing, because the work keeps you young. As you get older, retirement should be about indulging in the work that you most enjoy.

Landscape Artist of the Year airs Wednesdays at 8pm on Sky Arts (Freeview Channel 11)

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