Icons review – Hitchcock v Warhol in a fun, gimmicky battle of 20th-century titans

The competition element may have been a ruse to keep us watching, but this commendable series on the lives of influential figures gets my vote

Iunderstand that several recent results of allowing people to vote may have put you off the idea for the nonce, but, if you have been able to put your natural nervousness to one side, the BBC Two series Icons has been fun. Each week for the last six, a different presenter has taken us through potted histories of influential figures in various fields and invited the public to vote on which one best qualifies for iconic status. Next Tuesday delivers a live final at the end of which one of the winners from previous programmes – Nelson Mandela (leaders), Ernest Shackleton (explorers), Alan Turing (scientists), David Bowie (entertainers), Dr Martin Luther King Jr (activists) and Muhammad Ali (sports stars) – and from last night’s will compete for the honour of being named Top Banana of Top Bananas.

The last category was artists and writers. Actor, former model and art history graduate Lily Cole presented – in a manner so austere it verged on chilly and did little to bring to life the figures whose lives she was limning and hymning – and took us on the customary swift trot through the four stories to be told.

First up was Pablo Picasso, who altered the trajectory of western art by realising that you did not have to enshrine emotions and other horrors of the human condition in accurately human forms so that your eyes knew what was going on before anything else did; he kicked them cubistly at your heart instead. He was also, the programme mentioned, “renowned for his promiscuity” and believed there to be two groups of women, “goddesses and doormats”. But the good news about having to get through four icons in 60 minutes is that you don’t have time to dwell on every detail. In this case, you can just shout “Guernica!” a few more times and move on.

Then came Virginia Woolf (don’t know where she would have stood in Picasso’s scheme of things – bit too up herself to be a doormat, but would a goddess have a nose that big?). Her Joycean double-stream-of- consciousness novel Mrs Dalloway broke the rules of literature as decisively as Picasso had with art. Then, after founding the Hogarth Press (so much better than just a room of one’s own) with her husband Leonard, she produced the first transgender novel, Orlando, and the world of possibilities looked different again.

In the end, of course, neither her genius, her feminist energy, her Bloomsbury friends and lovers nor her work could save her. In 1941, after a decade wrestling with terrible depression (and worse treatments), she walked into the River Ouse with stones in her pockets, leaving a note for Leonard that read: “Dearest, I feel certain I am going mad again … so I’m doing what seems the best thing to do.”

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