CHRISTOPHER STEVENS: Why it's not just Mona Lisa hiding a secret

CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: Why it’s not just the Mona Lisa hiding a secret behind her smile

Lights Up: Sitting


The Day Will and Kate Got Married 


Great minds being what they are, Lights Up: Sitting (BBC4) is the second programme this year to explore the personalities behind portraits.

Last month, comedian Jenny Eclair presented Drawers Off on Channel 4, where amateur artists took it in turns to disrobe and sit for a life class competition.

As they sketched, painted or posed, the contestants chatted away. Much more than skin was revealed.

Actress Katherine Parkinson, of Humans and The IT Crowd, tackled the same theme in her first play, Sitting (BBC4) — part of the Lights Up series of theatre productions staged under lockdown rules.

Parkinson played Mary, a sad-eyed, sardonic single mother whose one escape from loneliness was the afternoon she spent each week, posing as a model for a well-to-do painter.

Mary talked straight into the camera, making us feel we were that silent figure behind the easel.

Actress Katherine Parkinson, of Humans and The IT Crowd, features in Lights Up: Sitting

‘No one’s ever looked at me as much as you do,’ she said — an accusation of voyeurism that could induce queasiness in the most innocent of viewers.

What is television about, if not for staring at people who cannot see us?

Gradually it became obvious that the invisible painter was an old lecher, and Mary was conducting an affair with him, in his own house. Intercut with this story were two other monologues by sitters.

One was a dim young man, Luke (Mark Weinman), so gauche that he sat down stark naked — he didn’t realise people sometimes had their pictures painted with their clothes on.

The other was a sassy, nervous woman in her 20s who called herself Cassandra (Alex Jarrett) and harboured fantasies of being an actress. Something connected the three, but the picture made sense only slowly.

Parkinson’s script tricked us into imagining the portraits were all painted around the same time, since the scenes often appeared together in a split screen.

Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge journey by carriage procession to Buckingham Palace following their marriage at Westminster Abbey in April 2011

It was only when we worked out that Mary sat 20 years ago, and was long dead by the time the other models arrived, that their stories came into perspective.

Cassandra was Mary’s daughter, just six when her mum died and barely able to remember her face. Luke, though he didn’t have a clue, was the painter’s illegitimate son.

It was artfully written, setting out clues like details in the background of a picture.

Parkinson’s comic talent shone through the dialogue, too, with wordplay and puns that ensured the performances never became morose.

‘It’s weird,’ Luke pondered, ‘just sitting. It’s harder than you think — like, thoughts fly about and you get all . . . thinky.’

One of the world’s most famous amateur painters is Prince Charles, but The Day Will And Kate Got Married (ITV) revealed there’s another artist in the Royal Family, as the show marked the couple’s tenth wedding anniversary this month.

The Day Will And Kate Got Married marked the couple’s tenth wedding anniversary this month

Kate Middleton’s grandfather on her mother’s side was a painter and decorator, explained an interviewee and wedding guest, her rascally Uncle Gary.

Gary has a fund of anecdotes, most of which revolve around himself. He cheerfully admits that his sister, Kate’s mum, and her family ‘never tell me a secret — I’m terrible with them’.

But none of his stories could match the tale by a Met officer, whose team were on security duty when they spotted a car dumped outside the Goring Hotel in Belgravia — where the future Duchess of Cambridge was making the final adjustments to her dress.

Fearing a terrorist attack, police sent in a bomb squad. It turned out the vehicle belonged to a tourist — who ‘came back to find a car with no doors or windows. And a parking ticket’.

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