Remembering Tony Hart
Following the death of veteran television presenter Tony Hart at the age of 83 last Sunday, frieze asked artist Ryan Gander to consider the influence of Hart’s BBC programmes on him and others of his generation. Between 1954 and 2000, Hart presented a number of TV series – including Playbox (1954–59), Take Hart (1978-84), and Hartbeat (1984-93) – that introduced several generations of children to art. A regular feature of Hart’s TV shows was ‘The Gallery’, in which paintings, drawings and collages sent in by young viewers were displayed and discussed. Hart received two BAFTA awards and was given a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1998. He retired from regular TV work in 2001.
I met Rolf Harris in a hotel lobby in Sydney last year. It’s funny being in Sydney as an artist working, and accidentally ending up sitting on a sofa chatting with ‘Ken yer see what it is yit?’ himself, waiting for the rain to stop. Rolf asked why I was there and I told him I was in the biennale – ironically he seemed a bit jealous, so I asked him about painting the Queen to appease him.
While I never met Tony Hart, I would say that Take Hart was an important part of my childhood. Since Hart’s sad death last week he has come up in quite a few conversations with friends. Now, as I try to remember him, it’s apparent that I am, in actuality, misremembering him already. That might not be a good thing, but there’s a reason for it.
I remember that Tony Hart wore a cravat and chinos, and I sort of remember chest hair, but I don’t know how much. He was a man with a soft gentle voice and there were normally two or three amazingly beautiful girls assisting him in each programme, though they seemed to be replaced by more amazingly beautiful girls far too regularly, but maybe I am making that up? I remember the little plasticine fella, Morph (pictured above), as well as his sidekick who was a vehicle to visually explain things to the viewer, but Tony was the one with the ideas.
I say I am misremembering him because I seem to be describing a slightly older version of the character Thomas the photographer played by David Hemmings (pictured above) in Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup (1966). You see, I am building in my mind a picture of what we perceive to be an artist, what we might expect, and that’s confusing for me. It’s dangerous that we could end up remembering this man as an actor, or a cardboard cut-out of a character or TV presenter. I am convinced we should remember him as an artist’s artist.
A friend once told me in a pub that I shouldn’t be so dismissive of clichés, because a cliché is a cliché because everyone agrees on it. That is, because many people think the same thing individually, it’s not contagious – it’s just very, very popular. This means, of course, that most clichés are good images, ideas or relationships. Maybe I’m concerned that Tony Hart will be remembered as a cliché because I think all the really interesting artists are the ones that don’t want to ‘be’ artists, but, in a very simple sense, just ‘make work’ or ‘have ideas’. And similarly for those that ‘make that work’, a worse insult could not be imagined than, ‘it looks like art’.
Take Hart for me as a child – and similarly Hartbeat, which was broadcast between 1984 and 1993 – was purely about ideas: the act of doing and exploring, finding faces in inanimate objects, looking for doppelgängers of shapes, attempting to balance a mobile made from a feather and a brick. Tony Hart filled me with an energy to do and to explore, to look at things upside-down, or inside-out. This creative optimism was undoubtedly a product of Hart, but also a product of an era of British television of a much higher standard to that that we see today. Take Hart‘s successor Art Attack, presented by Neil Buchanan, for example… It’s just not good telly; it’s about making things ‘appear to be’, not ‘making things’.
Hart was a man responsible for millions of 6-to-8 year olds questioning whether they would rather be a fireman, a soldier, a teacher, a vet or an artist – and that’s amazing. And if we did choose artist, lets hope that our ideas are as good to us as we are to them. I get the impression that Tony Hart’s ideas really looked after him.