The Secret Artists: A balm for the mind and spirit in a noisy, overwhelming world

The comic Colin Murphy and a former paramilitary are among the aspiring artists submitting work to the Royal Ulster Academy in Hilary Fennell’s documentary

Television has never felt bigger and louder. So it’s comforting to know there is still room in the schedules for something as sweet and small-scale as The Secret Artists (BBC One Northern Ireland, Wednesday, 10.40pm). It’s a lightly sketched profile of a quintet of aspiring Northern Ireland artists. We join them as they compete, ever so demurely, for a place in the Royal Ulster Academy of Arts’ annual showpiece event, in Belfast – a shop window that could potentially introduce their work to a new audience.

No grand claims are made for the art or the artists. The comedian Colin Murphy submits an image of a mirror catching the reflection of a bed. It won’t change the world. But it gives Murphy something to do in his cosy man shed. (He can touch both walls by stretching out his arms.) He’s been previously accepted by the academy – but there was one rejection. He shrugs: that’s life.

“I’ve been rejected for a lot of things,” says Murphy. “It’s just the risk you take.”

Colin Murphy’s tiny canvas is lost slightly amid the other works in the Royal Ulster Academy exhibition. But that’s fine

That is also the attitude, more or less, of the former paramilitary member Stephen Greer. A less dainty doc would have gone all-in on his tumultuous backstory. He is a recovering substance addict who had the winning idea of joining a paramilitary organisation after the Belfast Agreement, when the terrorists were charting a bright future as glorified drug dealers.


He’s on the straight and narrow now – and in need of a liver transplant. This is the subject of his entry for the exhibition: a self-portrait in which he stands before a mirror, displaying faded grey tattoos and angry surgery scars (the consequence of a previous transplant, which didn’t take).

“I took up art in prison – it was like being in a different world.”

He speaks softly as he recalls his incident-filled life. The same understatement is a feature of Hilary Fennell’s film. Alice Wyatt explains that art is an outlet for emotions she buried when abused as a child. Her daughter Amy talks about her own anxiety disorder. “Art is my medication,” she says.

Alas, mother and daughter are both rejected by the academy, which uses an X Factor-style panel of judges to run the rule over entrants. Greer also receives a thumbs down. Murphy, however, is successful – as is Thomas McNeill, a Coleraine farmer who has sculpted an enormous matchbox in a slough of ashes. Fifteen times larger than the real thing, it symbolises a “random act of destruction”.

The matchbox strikes a chord with the public; Murphy’s tiny canvas is lost slightly amid the other works. But that’s fine. The message of The Secret Artists is that the simple act of picking up a brush or pen and getting your ideas down is its own kind of victory. In a noisy, overwhelming world, the documentary itself is an agreeable helping of slow TV – a balm for the mind and spirit as we slog through another grey February.