Tuesday, December 09, 2008
Saturday, November 29, 2008
Important Note For Everyone
Wednesday, November 26, 2008
Important Note For the BBC
Why, incidentally, does the Today programme continue to say things like "he used the F-word"? Whose sensibilities are they trying to protect? Those of the kind of Daily Mail reader who would be traumatized by seeing the word "masturbation" in plain print? When Today ran an item about how some black people have reclaimed the N-word, they were quite happy to actually pronounce it.
The Daily Mail thinks that in attacking the BBC, it is striking a blow against the liberal, intellectual, metropolitan elite. I have no stomach for a class-war: but if it comes to a fight between the liberal, intellectual, metropolitan elite and the reactionary, ignorant, provincial riff-raff then I know which side I intend to fight on.
I have very little interest in the role-call of minor pop singers and spoiled Hollywood luvvettes who parade across Jonathan Ross's chat show: but surely any fool can see that he is a consummate master of the medium of live television? He seems to have the capacity to, on the one hand, totally forget, and to make his victims forget, that they are in front of a camera; while at the same time using the camera as a licence to say the kinds of things that you simply wouldn't say in real life. In an era when TV is bigger than Jesus, the man who can do that will naturally command an astronomical salary. I am not especially entertained by a grown man saying "Bum" to an actress that I have never heard of: but I think that "In Search of Steve Ditko" was the single best documentary about comic-books ever made. Ross is the only person who has ever successfully challenged Stan Lee's version of events; only someone with his outrageous interviewing style could have done so. Obviously, someone who is paid for having this persona is going to overstep the mark from time to time.
When the Daily Mail is looking for an excuse to hang you, it is most unwise to give them any rope. But the idea that sacking a couple of "shock jocks" will silence the Hooray For the Blackshirts brigade is naive in the extreme. Nothing short of the abolition of the licence fee, which they regard as a thievery on a level with droit du seigneur will satisfy them. Do you really think that allowing them to scent blood is going to calm them down? Surely it is a matter of basic human decency to stick up for your naughty kids in public, even if you give them a clip round the ear when you get them home?
Or am I just too inclined to assume that anyone who named one of their children "Kirby" can't be all-bad?
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Important Note For Politicians and Leader Writers
Bad Things are not the result of some local and contemporary state of affairs which could, in principle, be changed.
Bad Things would have happened even if the previous administration had not made any errors of judgment; and Bad Things will carry on happening even if you form the next administration. Bad Things are not the ugly manifestation of a society no longer worthy of the name. Bad Things are not proof that we live in a broken society. There were Bad Things before the Second World War; and Bad Things before the nineteen sixties. There were Bad Things before women started to go out to work. Even when we lived in nuclear families and communities and exerted social pressure through each others net curtains, there were still Bad Things.
When a Bad Thing happens, it is not a pretext for you to say that everything you have been saying about everything for the last few years has been right; and everything the other side has been saying about everything for the last few years has been wrong. It is most unlikely that any particular Bad Thing has been caused by liberals, civil partnerships, easy divorce, rude disc-jockeys, or the paying of income support to disabled people.
When a Bad Thing happens, please resist the temptation to say "We must make sure that such a Bad Thing never happens again." Because it will. Almost certainly, it already has.
Oh: and there is no such thing as a "pauper's funeral". Even John Doe gets a hearse, a clergyman, and a marked grave.
Friday, September 05, 2008
Frank Cottrell Boyce
(I watched Mr Boyce's play. It is jolly nice that the BBC is still up for doing serious cerebral theatrical drama from time to time; all the thesps were acting a lot; the theological points on all sides were well made and followed through; but it managed to still be about characters rather than just a debate. But I couldn't shake the sense that this was a Christian - maybe specifically Catholic - view of the holocaust: every time someone said "It's God who should have been sent to Auschwitz" I could almost hear the Priest adding: "And do you know, in a very real sense, He was." Maybe a Christian writer can't avoid drawing a line between Cavalry and the concentration camps - it's old news that the Suffering Servant is both Jesus and the Jews. But I wonder what Jewish groups and actual holocaust survivors made of the piece?)
Friday, October 27, 2006
Wednesday, October 25, 2006
Reader, I Adapted Him
Prestige literary adaptations have to turn into bonkbusters; kids adventure series just can't help taking the piss. I think the best solution would have been to run the two things together. Jane Eyre Warrior Princess dispossessed from Thornfield hall by evil King George, living wild on the moors with her band of, well, rather dour women, robbing from the industrial middle classes and giving to the inmates of evangelical boarding schools. That would really have been post-modern. Give me a minute and I can work in some hippos.
Friday, June 30, 2006
I have a terrible confession to make. I allowed the DVD rental people to send me the first two discs of the 1956-7 Adventures of Sir Lancelot TV series. And what is even worse, I rather liked them.
I assume that Sir Lancelot was a follow-up to the Richard Greene Adventures of Robin Hood. It does the same spinning round thing with the titles; and it has an annoyingly catchy theme song over the closing credits. "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen..." became a chart hit. "Come listen to my story/come listen while I sing/of days of old in England/when Arthur was the King..." presumably didn't.
I rented the thing because I wanted to see William Russell in some role other than Ian Chesterton. But I was disappointed. Sir Lancelot is in all respects the same character as Ian. He has the same combination of self-effacing modesty and square-jawed resolution. His relationship with Merlin is precisely the same as Ian's relationship with the first Doctor. Lancelot is an endless fount of general knowledge. He not only knows the quote about doing as the Romans do while you are in Rome; he also remembers that it was St. Ambrose who said it.. When Merlin wants to preserve an ancient book by Archimedes, Lancelot is the only knight who has heard of him. When Merlin has the amazingly original idea of using pigeons to carry messages, it's Lancelot who points out that the same thing was tried by Solomon. He imparts this information in a self-effacing but resolute way. One might almost think that in a previous life he'd been some kind of school teacher . He certainly comes across on the jousting field as a patient but demanding cricket master. "It's not enough to be quite good in this game. You have to be very good indeed....". (He pronounces it all as one word, veddygoodindeed.) His relationship with his squire, Brian, also recalls Ian's relationship with Susan. Lancelot always knows best, and won't put up with any nonsense, but he's honest and upfront with the lad. ("Do knights really keep their vows? says Brian. "Some do, and some don't." replies Sir Ian. "You can beat them, can't you?" says Brian when Lancelot is about to fight some anachronistic gladiators. "I don't know Brian" says our hero "I just don't know.")
And as was so often the case in Doctor Who one feels that William Russell is an Actor with a capital A. It is often very obvious that he is "carrying" the rest of the cast. He delivers even the corniest lines with a light, naturalistic touch. He does his best not to upstage the drama-school hams he's surrounded by. But you get a sense he's wondering why he's on children's TV when he really wanted to be a matinee idol.
The world of Sir Lancelot is a world of strange accents and even stranger haircuts. The real star of the show is Sir Kay's false moustache. Squire Brian is introduced as a kitchen-lad; and for the first few episodes, he sometimes remembers to talk in mummerset, but he soon gives up and reverts to RADA posh. ("I shell try orfally hard to be brave" he says, before being dragged off to be tortured by Sir Someone-or-other.)
These are boys stories: about boys, for boys. The Knights of the Round Table are big boys; interested in boyish things like fighting, and – well, fighting, basically. The squires are smaller boys. Apart from Brian, they don't have names; and they go about in a group, rather as if they were the Round Table (Junior Division). The big boys are generally nice to the younger boys; even though they sometimes have to tell them off. When Merlin complains that Brian is playing pranks, Lancelot laughs that that is how boys are, and says that even Merlin must have been a boy once – but he backs Merlin in giving Brian extra chores. King Arthur is the only proper grown-up, and he says things like "I can see from your face that you have been punished enough." Merlin is very old and wise but the boys can go to him for advice. ("I don't mean to interrupt your work" says Lancelot. "Helping knights who are in trouble is part of my work" says Grandfather.) Clearly, Camelot is either a Scout camp or a public school. When William Russell takes a week's holiday and Brian gets a story to himself, the whole thing turns into Sir Thomas Brown's School-days. Another lad dares Brian to sneak into the girls dormitory and steal Matron's nightcap. ("It was only a lark, Sire.") Why there is a girls dorm at Camelot, we never find out.
There are grown up Ladies as well. They are there mainly for decoration. They get abducted by evil knights, in which case Sir Lancelot rescues them -- although they have a disconcerting tendency to admit that they actually quite like their captors. Sometimes, it's Sir Lancelot who gets captured by evil knights, in which case Ladies visit him in his cell and do him unexpected kindnesses, often involving keys. When Lancelot disagrees with Arthur (about one episode in three), Guinevere sometimes says "My Lord, perhaps Lancelot is in the right in this case." Uncouth knights often have gentle sisters who nevertheless love them and can appeal to their better natures. When foreign knights visit Camelot, Guinevere shows them round the castle. There are no nuns or witches. Even female peasants seem to be in rather short supply.
It's rather well staged; it looks like more time was spent in National Trust castles than in the studios. The costumes show signs of having been glanced at by an historical adviser. There are no battles -- it seems to be possible to besiege a castle with two knights and one catapult -- but there are enough extras for fairly impressive skirmishes. On foot, combat is desperately theatrical: swords clash above our heads and then below our waists, before Lancelot pushes Sir Nasty with his shoulder and orders him to yield. Spiral staircases, battlements, and rooms with lots of furniture in them are the best places for a sword-fight. If you lose your sword, you can generally make do with a candlestick; or if that fails, a piece of wood. Sir Lancelot seems to find mounting and dismounting his horse rather difficult, and can look a little awkward in mounted close ups...but as soon as he puts his visor down, he miraculously becomes a rather competent horseman. The jousting is really done very nicely indeed.
The theme song proclaims, a trifle ambitiously that Lancelot has fought a million battles and never lost a-one. This presents problems for the writers, but they show some ingenuity in coming up with plots which challenge Sir Invincible. On St. Stephen's Day, all the knights take a vow not to carry arms, and to do whatever their squires tell them, which is inconvenient, considering that that's the very day Sir Baddy steals Excalibur. Sir Wimp goes off to rescue his Lady's father on his own, although he is no match for Sir Villain; Lancelot must follow in secret and help Sir Wimp beat Sir Villain while keeping his honour. Sir Newbie is a skilled warrior but loses his nerve in actual fights; Lancelot must find a way to give him some self-confidence. And Arthur keeps finding that in the case of this particular urgent and crucial mission, it would make sense for a single knight to go alone.
Connections with any known Arthurian legend are few and far between. In episode 1, Lancelot and Guinevere exchange significant glances. Morgana le Fey gets name checked, but doesn't appear. All supernatural elements are resolutely debunked. Merlin lets the knights think he has magic powers but it's really done with pulleys, levers. semaphore, chemistry and carrier pigeons. Excalibur is nothing more than a symbol. Lancelot spins a yarn about finding his own sword in a lake, and some credulous folk take it seriously.
It is never camp or ironic; it never tries to be clever. It's a series of 25 minutes stories about knights-in-armour and you have to accept it for what it is. In 1955, cameras were clunkier and editing rooms less efficient: actors were presumably given their scripts on Monday and shot the episode on Friday. So there's no scope for visual trickery, no swift cuts or cinematic niceties. Scene follows scene with nothing but simple narrative to carry the day. Something surprising happens; which leads to another surprising thing; which leads to yet another surprising thing – and so on until Brian or Merlin but usually Lancelot comes up with a surprising stratagem to save the day. Arthur puts the crown jewels on display in Sir Someone's abbey. After he has gone, robbers emerge through a trap door and take the jewels! Merlin tells Brian to take his pigeons to Coventry as punishment for another prank. On the way, Brian hitches a lift on a wagon. The wagon is then hijacked by the jewel thieves! Brian finds the jewels, and uses the pigeon to send word to Merlin. The thieves catch Brian, and lock him up in their castle..... Sophisticated it is not, but I kept on watching because I wanted to know what happened next.
I don't know. Lack of sophistication is not automatically a virtue. Black and white photography does not excuse all narrative sins. (The series eventually goes to colour, which is a mistake. You mean Arthur dressed his men at arms in bright pink?) A regular diet of plot-plot-plot would become as indigestible as a regular 1950s diet of meat-and-two-veg. And it goes without saying that I think that Ladies can do things apart from look pretty. Some ladies, any way. Yet in world which sometimes feels 'tired with the weight of too much liberty', there is something very appealing about an age when TV thought that its main task was to tell a story which actually made sense. And there's something naively attractive about the unapologetic boyishness of the whole thing. (I think that "boyishness" is the word I am looking for: male, but in no sense laddish or macho. Finding a gay subtext, particularly in the Lancelot/Brian relationship, would be like shooting peasants in a barrel.) I don't really want to go back to a time when such TV shows were the norm; but then; I don't especially want to live in a world where you solved disputes by sitting on horses and hitting each other very hard with sharp metal objects. I never really enjoyed Scout Camp very much. But it's great fun to imagine that there was a mythical past where such things were so.
"In days of old...when knights were bold...this story's told...of Lancelot!"
Monday, May 22, 2006
No one is innocent
Before watching the film, I knew practically nothing about the case. Naturally, I was aware that Ian Brady and Myra Hindley had murdered several young children in the 1960s. I knew that Lord Longford believed that since Hindley had become a devout Catholic, she was a reformed character and should be considered for parole. I knew that the Sun thought that since she had peroxide hair, she was evil and should not be. But I didn’t really know who they had killed, under what circumstances, and why. This extremely gripping but curiously evasive three-hour drama didn’t leave me feeling much the wiser.
Dealing with this kind of material presents a writer with two problems. First, he has to stick to the facts. The film is proud of the fact that it has been made in close collaboration with the victims’ families, police officers and others closely associated with the case. The very first thing we are told is that “This is a true story”, and one gets the impression that no incident is put into the film which hasn’t been checked against two sources. In itself, this is a Good Thing: it would be quite unacceptable to take a real-life Orrible Murder and use it simply as a jumping off point for a work of fiction. But it creates an obvious difficulty. Hindley and Brady never made full confessions so their states of minds at the time of the murders is a matter of conjecture. Even the precise details of their crimes aren’t fully known or knowable. This leaves a gaping hole in the middle of any fact-based drama. Secondly the film wants to avoid being sensationalist, exploitative or ghoulish. So it has to adopt a “tell, don’t show” approach. We hear what the police say that Myra did; we hear what little she admitted to; but we actually see very little of it. A lot of the time, this approach makes perfectly good dramatic and documentary sense. The scene in which the police officers search the moor and dig up a child’s shoe is far more distressing than any Brady themed slasher-flick could have been. But sometimes it leads the filmmakers into unintentional surrealism. The evidence which damned Hindley and Brady was, of course, the discovery of a tape recording of a little girl being tortured. There is, thank goodness, no attempt to recreate this tape for the edification of TV audiences. Instead, as the horrified police play the recording on their old-fashioned reel-to-reel tape recorder, the TV audience listens to a child's voice singing "The Little Drummer Boy".
The solution to this structural conundrum -- a true crime movie which can't represent the actual crime -- is to take Maureen Hindley and her husband David Smith as viewpoint characters. For almost the whole of episode 1, nothing happens. Maureen and Dave spend time with sister Myra and her weird boyfriend Ian, and the film allows Dramatic Irony to create its own chilling effects. The audience knows what Myra is doing, even though the police and her family do not. Myra comforts Maureen over the death of her first baby: but we know that she is simultaneously plotting to murder other children. Myra let's slip that she knows what a dead body looks like, and quickly claims that she is talking about childhood friend who drowned. We know the real reason. Myra mentions in passing that her car is convenient for carrying bulky luggage... None of this is made explicit in the screenplay: we don’t “know” that Myra and Ian are murderers until the very end of episode 1. I wonder what a Martian, or come to that an American, who has never heard of the Moors murders would make of the film?
Meanwhile, some old-fashioned no-nonsense police officers - the type whose idea of detective work is to yell “You killed him, didn’t you!” at suspects - are investigating a string of missing children, only gradually spotting that the cases are connected. Inevitably, one of the coppers is Obsessed with the case of Keith Bennet, and has Started to Take it Personally. We even see him sitting in his office staring at the “Have you seen this child?” poster at one point. Even if this is what happened in real life, it's still a dreadful cliché.
So what we have is basically a high quality episode of Columbo. Not a "who dunnit" or a "why dunnit", more a “when and how will the police realise that that they dunnit.”
In the last ten minutes of episode 1, Dave goes to the Hindley/Brady residence and witnesses them committing a murder. We do get a glimpse of this killing, but only momentarily, and in flashback. The bloodstained Dave tells Maureen that "Brady has killed a man" -- and then we flash for a few brief seconds to a shot, lit heavily in red, of Brady frenziedly attacking Edward Evans with an axe while Hindley watches impassively. Nothing that comes beforehand in the story really prepares us for this scene and nothing which comes afterwards explains it. It’s presented as out-of-context, free-floating self-existent terror. As a Stephen King moment, it's quite brilliantly done: two demonic figures presiding over a literally hellish scene. The juxta-positioning of the banal and the horrible; the jump from the world of cop-show and soap opera into the world of gothic; the jump from "perfectly normal Myra" and "pretentious bragger Ian" to "Satanic child killers" certainly had the desired effect. My immediate reaction was "Is that what they did? I can see why people call them Evil."
And there’s the problem. Actress Maxine Peake offers us three separate characterisations of Myra Hindley. She spends the first episode playing her as an aggressively normal northern lass. We entirely understand and believe that Maureen never suspected anything bad about her sister. She spends most of episode two as a film noire villain -- sneering at the court, refusing to admit to her part in the killings -- very much the callous play-acting monster that we’ve come to know and love through 40 years of “evil-Myra” news-stories. And then, in a coda, we see a no-longer-peroxide Myra telling her sister that she has found God in prison and is truly sorry for what she did. The big question, narratively and philosophically is what connects these three women. Can someone be both normal and murderous? Can someone go from murderous to remorseful? Why did Myra become a murderess but Maureen turn out all right? No attempt is made to suggest, or even hint at an answer. Significantly, the explanation which Myra herself is shown offering is pathetically inadequate -- she thinks that she is “damaged” because her father beat her.
Brady is even more of a problem. He seems to be some kind of Nietzschean super-man; believing that if he is strong enough to commit murder, he will make himself superior to the common heard. He hasn’t been on screen for five minutes before he is asking whether or not animals have souls, and suggesting that if souls don’t exist then the whole idea of god and morality is “shite”. He implies that Dave isn't a proper man because he's never killed anyone; lends him copies of the Marquis de Sade and forces him to play Russian roulette as an initiation rite. (Brady may have been “grooming” Dave Smith as a second accomplice, but when Dave witnesses the murder, he goes straight to the police. Dave is still alive and presumably helped with the making of film, which bends over backwards to show that he didn‘t do anything seriously wrong.) Of course, as an explanation, this doesn’t go very far beyond “He murdered people because he was the kind of person who murdered people.”
At least since “Silence of the Lambs”, we have had a rather ambivalent attitude to mass murderers: they are to be feared and locked away, certainly, but we also find them rather attractive because of the energy they draw from their “evil”. I don’t know whether the real Brady expressed these kinds of views, or if he is slipping into the role of T.V serial killer, in the same way that Detective Mounsey slips into the role of TV cop. But this characterisation makes him a dangerously romantic, even heroic, figure. More than once, I caught myself thinking “This guy seems rather interesting; and of course, he is still alive: I'd sure like to read an interview with him" This was not, I imagine, what the writers had in mind.
So: the film proposes no reasons for the Moors murders. And popular wisdom has always said that there are no reasons. Hindley in particular is in a unique metaphysical category called Evil and nothing further can be said. To try to explain what happened -- in terms of damage to her personality, madness, addiction, manipulation by someone else, childhood abuse, even literal demonic possession -- is to make excuses for her and therefore lessen the evil of what she did. And to do that devalues the suffering of the people she murdered and their families -- who are, of course, at the absolute pinnacle of the modern cult of victim-worship. The film, due to its very structure, draws us into this tabloid worldview. While I was watching it, I felt myself starting to think like a Daily Express reader. I found that very disturbing indeed.
The film trips over its own feet trying to deal with the question of Myra’s eventual reform. Maureen believes that Myra is truly remorseful; but Dave rants that she is even more evil than Brady on the philosophically intriguing grounds that he is “just” a sex monster, but she is “still human”. (I fear that this means "You expect this kind of thing from a man, but when a woman does it, it's really bad.”) Despite the fact that the trial judge had (more or less) sentenced Brady to life without parole but Hindley to between twenty five years and life in prison, successive home secretaries refused to consider her for parole. David (spit) Blunkett said in so many words that she couldn’t be let out because ordinary people didn’t think she had reformed: that is, her sentence was decided by her image in the tabloids, an image which films like this tend to perpetuate. There is actually a more interesting movie to be made about what happened to Myra Hindley while she was behind bars: Lord Longford’s diaries, her own prison writings, and forty years of journalistic gossip, would surely provide a lot of documentary material for this. But it would have to explore the forbidden territory of "explanation".
Even at its best, TV is the most clichéd of media. Just as there is an etiquette for reporting a royal death or an election, so there is an established vocabulary out of which dramas about "real life tragedies" have to be constructed. From the first, inevitable establishing shots of the wind-swept moors we knew -- we just knew -- that the film would end with a caption saying "Keith Bennet's body was never found“. But, as the credits rolled in silence over images of the five real life murder victims, there was one significant break with established practice. The continuity announcer was somehow persuaded to keep his mouth shut.
Monday, November 21, 2005
I'm a Celebrant, Get Me Out of Here
Could I remind everyone to watch "Priest Idol" tonight? It's one of those rare T.V programmes which makes you think that John Logie-Baird maybe did the human race a favour after all.
The series suffers from Modern Documentary Syndrome. Everything must be visual; everything must be dramatic. Apparently, the young people would not be able to grasp the fact that Isaac Newton was able to reconcile his mechanistic view of the universe with the his belief in God without seeing Rev. Owen-Jones stetting up a Scalectric race track in a church. Without, indeed, seeing Rev Owen-Jones going into a toy-shop and buying the Scalectric set. The car whizzes round and round the track, but someone had to set the track up in the first place - get it?
Rev. Owen-Jones approaches religion from a sociological point of view: he has very little to say about doctrine. In Wesley's time, the church catered mainly to the middle-classes; and many of them disapproved of him preaching to poor people who never came near a church. Methodist chapels were democratic and inclusive; working-class local preachers expounded the Bible to their neighbours. Very probably: but surely Wesley's beliefs differed from those of the established church as well. His "whosoever will may come" inclusiveness was a reaction against the hyper-Calvinists who thought that some people were simply beyond salvation, and that wealth was a sign of divine election. Again, Jones thinks that the modern "Alpha" movement has been successful because of its strong sense of community; but isn't it more to the point that Nicky Gumball offers a straight-forward and fairly coherent explanation of what Christians believe, as compared with the vagueness and evasion of the average Bishop?
Possibly in the name of "balance", when Rev. Jones went away, his slot was filled by Jonathon Miller's "Brief History of Unbelief" -- an equally biased and equally polemical history of atheism. Rev. Jones never quite went so far as to say that Christianity was a Good Thing and the Athiests were Wrong but one rather suspected that this was what he thought. Miller makes no secret of the fact that his series is making out a case for the sceptics being right and the theists being wrong. Miller is, of course, Britain's Top Intellectual. He started out as comedian and ended up producing plays and operas, with a career break in the middle to study brain-surgery.
When he was dealing with ideas and philosophy, the programme was rather excellent. It wheeled on an analytical philosopher to give answers to questions about the nature of "belief" that it wouldn't have occurred to me to ask. (Do you believe in something when you are not thinking about it? Can you say of someone who is asleep or in a coma "He believes such-and-such"?) It then turned to an anthropoligist to show us what all world religions, even the most primitive, had in common. Miller strikingly resisted the idea that religion and science were necessarily in conflict, or that religion had necessarily declined as science had advanced. He pointed out that Galileo, Copernicus and Newton had all remained pious Christians despite their scientific discoveries. Even Darwin's loss of faith had more to do with the death of his daughter than the Galapagos tortoises. (Happy birthday, by the way.) Miller's final conclusion was that "belief" or "disbelief" had as much to do with temperament as anything else: there were ancient Greeks with a totally materialistic world-view; and there are modern-day people who see supernatural forces everywhere. Nevertheless, it is historically inevitable that religious belief will come to an end.
"History of Unbelief" was marred by Miller's need to do a small amount of sneering each week. One got the impression that he thought that there was so little atheism on TV that he had better make the most of it. The first episode's philosophical rigor was rounded off by footage of Jonathon and his clever friends laughing at all these stupid religious people and wondering if Jesus and Moses were insane. The final one had some off-hand remarks about "ignorant and stupid" fundamentalists who believe in Creation, without any attempt to talk to an ignorant, stupid fundamentalist and find out how he actually thinks. It was evidently produced on a much lower budget than "Battle for Britian's Soul", and contained some very weird production ideas. At times, we had Miller watching himself on his laptop and commenting on what he had just said. At random moments, we would gets strange grainy - almost subliminal - clips from black and white movies. Some of these were relevant, such as a monochrome shot of priest nailing something to a church door, to indicate we were up to the reformation. Others, less so, such as a shot of a schoolboy taking a test to illustrate the point that "knowing the alphabet" and "believing in god" are in some ways similar and in other ways not. Where Owen-Jones had actors in period costume pretending to be Wesley or William Booth all of Miller's quotes from famous atheists were read out in a sinister voice by Theoden.
The best bit was Miller inducing Richard Dawkins to make a complete arse of himself -- not, admittedly, the hardest of tasks. Miller could understand how having feathers gave one an advantage in the natural selection stakes; but he couldn't see why the most primitive mutation that will eventually become a feather -- a bump in the skin or a pimple -- could make the pimple-bearer more likely to survive. Dawkins opened his mouth without checking to see if his brain was engaged, and found himself irrevocably committed to the sentence "Well, I suppose it comes down to a matter of faith on my part." I know what he meant; I know that faith in the scientific process is not the same as faith in a supernatural being; I know that there are a dozen good answers to Jonathon's good question. But that sentence is so going to come back and haunt him.
In short, Miller's programme on atheism had far more intellectual meat and better ideas; but was ultimately unsatisfying; Rev. Jones programme about religious belief had less rigor but was much livelier and more engaging. I feel a metaphor coming on...
Meanwhile, Channel 4 is running "Priest Idol". Watching this programme is like watching someone in doc martins kick a very small, very cute kitten, repeatedly. I mean that in a good sense. The original idea behind the programme sounds dreadful: on the back of talentless shows like "Pop Idol" and "Fame Academy" someone had the idea of a "reality TV" show about Vicars. The idea was to interview a number of clergyman about possible strategies for turning around a failing parish in Barnsley (average weekly congregation - 9.) The Vicar who came up with the best ideas would move into the parish with a large sum of money and try to put them into practice. It's a protestant Church, so they couldn't call it "Pope Idol"; although strangely, everyone in Barnsley seems to address C of E clergymen as "Father."
In the event, they only got one application for the position, a very well-meaning episcopalian from Pittsburgh U.S.A. He accepted the job, and the TV people decided to drop the game-show metaphor and just do a fly-on-the-wall-of-Jerico documentary about how the Yank coped in a Tough Northern Parish. The sacrificial lamb, Father James McGaskill is endlessly friendly and optimistic. He's the sort of fellow who doesn't just talk about the Shield of Faith, but tells you that it's from Ephesians 6. He only looks a bit embarrassed when people say "fuck" to him, which they do a lot. He hands out thousands of leaflets inviting people to his inaugural service; the pews stay empty. He introduces himself to everyone in the pub and invites them to come to church; they don't. He goes to the supermarket over the road and tells shoppers that the service is starting in a few minutes. It doesn't make any difference. He says that what he really wants to do is get teenagers into his congregation: everyone looks at him as if he is some kind of Martian.
At one point, the off-camera interviewer shows us the crumbling building and the empty pews, and then asks the asks the Vicar's Mum, visiting from the states, if she believes he can turn it around. "No, he can't" she says "But I believe the Lord can." I think that may have been the best moment I've ever seen on TV. An actual bit of spontaneous religious faith; more than you'd get in five years of "Though for the Day."
Depressingly, when a few teenagers do show up in church because their mates are in a "pop choir" which is singing a Christmas carol, the Vicar starts to obsess about whether they are going to disrupt the service. "Give me your word that you will be respectful," he whines. After a few minutes, they get kicked out. This is the only time at which Father James appears to show any sense of despair. "They don't have any respect for anyone, or anything, or any place" he says "I guess because they've never been taught it."
As part of the wreckage of the original "reality TV" concept, an advertising agency has been brought in to promote the church: we won't find out what their ideas are until part two. Even they think that the idea of making teenagers come to church might be a bit optimistic but they dutifully arrange a focus group with some kids. One of them suggests that the only way he would go inside a church would be "in a box". Another one, more hopefully, says he might consider it if he doesn't have to believe in God. "Does that new Vicar believes in God?" he asks. "I should imagine that he does", says the woman from the agency. Meanwhile, Father James' predecessor, Father David, a camp high church caricature with postcards of the Virgin Mary in his kitchen, sneers from a safe distance. The whole idea of a marketing agency horrifies him. Jesus didn't have an advertising agency, apparently. He just had twelve very ordinary people. "You don't even have that many," one may wish to reply.
Someone has painted "Fuck God" on the back of the church; our dog-collared Pollyana is glad that they didn't paint it on the front. Even the advertising people are shocked by this. They read out the word repeatedly, but Channel 4 thoughtfully bleep it out, and pixellate the letter "U", so that our moral well-being is preserved. But in final five minutes Father James reports that people keep asking him why he came to their town. "I say 'Why not?' and they say 'Because it's shit'. If that's what they think about their own community...." The word "shit" is left un-bleeped. Possibly we are close to the 9PM watershed when all children go to bed. Possibly they think that the word "shit" is purged by passing through these ecclesiastical lips. One can only hope that this holy innocent has something other than a moral victory to look forward to in part 2, and that Father David will end up being thrown to some particularly hungry lions.