Monthly Archives: April 2014

A great depiction of religion in modern Britain

 

The first week of Eastertide seems a fitting time to reflect on a rare example of modern TV drama which deals in detail with religious life.

I was led towards Rev. by serendipity.  I happened to hear the actor Tom Hollander one morning on the radio in 2010, talking about his new BBC2 TV series about a Church of England priest and about the real-life situation which had led to one of its comic episodes: how middle-class parents in London sometimes exaggerate or even fabricate a Christian faith in order to qualify their child for inclusion at a well-regarded Church of England school.

Rev. credits a number of Anglican clerics as advisers, which may be one reason why its three series have been so good at dealing with the many parts of contemporary British life which intersect with Christian faith and practice. For example, the clash between traditional church liturgy and superficially more attractive and popular evangelical groups; the temptation to use secular commercial methods to spread the Gospel message; the population shifts to the suburbs and the consequent emptiness of city centre churches; the ageing and reducing congregations; the annual popularity blip of church-going at Christmas; the occasional move of Anglican priests to the Catholic Church; the unconcealed homosexuality of clergy and laity; the relationships with Islam; the regular visitors to the churches which are often their neighbourhood’s most striking buildings for cultural and community rather than for spiritual gatherings.

In the 1980s, Channel 4’s Chance in a Million was enhanced by having, in its lead roles, Simon Callow and Brenda Blethyn, two actors who were more associated with theatre drama than TV sitcom.  One of Rev’s strengths is perhaps the best TV comedy cast since then: Hollander, Olivia Colman, Simon McBurney, Steve Evets, Miles Jupp; plus guests like Alexander Armstrong’s venal MP, Hugh Bonneville’s clerical media star, Ralph Fiennes’ bishop, Dexter Fletcher’s born-again contemporary artist.

Hollander’s character, Rev Adam Smallbone, is an entirely believable flawed representative of the modern church, struggling to meet the expectations of religious superiors, loyal parishioners and agnostic wife, and often seen to crack under the strain.

James Wood’s scripts are a rich enough blend of comedy and social commentary to work on a smaller budget, but extra pleasure is definitely provided by St Leonard’s Shoreditch,  London,  a great 18th century church, playing the role of Smallbone’s  own St Saviour’s in the Marshes.

Rev. takes religion and its role in modern Britain so seriously that you feel a little surprised, if relieved and gratified, that its audience has grown sufficiently large for it to have reached its third series.

 

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Good Friday in the city streets

 

Over the centuries, Holy Week and Easter were the focal periods for the creation and performance of many music and drama events. That this tradition was deeply rooted I could see during my first three decades of television viewing. That such programmes have become significantly rarer more recently is clear testament to our society’s chosen secularisation.

I thought that the BBC’s Manchester Passion was one of the better religious popularisations in recent years. When it was first screened in 2006, I was pleased at first simply by the idea of its live broadcast on BBC3 and the later repeat on BBC2 – then, as now, BBC3 was designated as a young person’s channel with an output which did not always appear substantial. Watching,  I was struck by how well many of these Manchester pop/rock songs worked in the different setting, led either by acoustic guitar or a broad bank of strings.   A third strength was Keith Allen’s narrator, exemplified by his grandstanding  introduction: “Manchester…founded by the Romans…bombed by the Nazis and the IRA”. Finally, the form of the whole performance:  the main stage in the centre of the city with the two peripatetic groups heading there through the streets for the inevitable conclusion and conflict; the actors playing Christ and his disciples, the real-life observers carrying in procession the Calvary cross.

Although songs and performances are not uniformly strong, it is a production which I have frequently returned to via You Tube, especially since my recent trip to Manchester gave me closer acquaintance with its city centre locations.

 

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Albert Square in front of the Town Hall – the main setting of the Manchester Passion.

 

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Jesus and his disciples first gather near Manchester’s Anglican Cathedral.

 

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The procession carrying the cross passes near the Central Library as it arrives at Albert Square.

 

 

 

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A specialist whose craftsmanship stays in fashion

 

 

Alfred Hitchcock, the king of suspense – the great genre director. Characterised more narrowly even than John Ford, who said “I make Westerns” but still won Oscars for other types of films. No English language director since has allowed himself or herself to be so pigeon-holed as Hitchcock was. Yet he appears known to the current generation of film reviewers and film fans to an extent that most of his contemporaries are not.

Famously, he frequently made brief acting appearances in his films. Perhaps, inevitably, then, he has been adopted as a drama character by some modern writers, particularly for what is now perceived as his slightly questionable treatment of glamorous leading actresses like Grace Kelly and Tippi Hedren.  However, it was still a little surprising to hear of him re-branded as a Cockney for the BBC Radio 2 series Barbara Windsor’s East End Men. Although born east of St Paul’s Cathedral, he surely grew up, as the son of a greengrocer, in circumstances which would have been considered comfortable, even posh, for that period. 

One of my formative experiences of film on TV was a Friday night series of Hitchcock films on BBC1 around 1970 – black and white ones from 1930s and 1940s. I remember The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, Rebecca, Saboteur, Lifeboat, Foreign Correspondent.

Those earlier films seemed to be judged as separate from the later glossy colour ones. Most notable among the latter were North by Northwest and The Birds. These must have been very popular as I do remember that, by the time I saw both in full around the turn of the 1970s/1980s, I had many times seen TV clips of the former’s crop dusting sequence and the latter’s scenes of the avian attacks. It wasn’t Hitchcock’s fault that the range of special effects open to him in The Birds looks a bit dated now, although to place a farm-land sequence so gratuitously in the middle of a largely urban drama is a different story!

At that time, Psycho seemed to be pre-eminent in the Hitchcock canon, high above the film which is currently regarded as equal or superior, Vertigo. When I first saw Vertigo as a teenager, it was screened as a routine Sunday night thriller – amazing how the reputation of a film can shift.

The reason why Hitchcock’s status remains so high may be that his chosen genre is still so popular. TV and cinema, especially the former, are still full of murder mysteries.  This may also be the reason why examples from all four decades of his work are still shown frequently enough on TV for all of us, whether we’re seeing them for the fifth or first time (I Confess was on TV for the first time in my memory just the other week) to be free to check whether we think his continuing celebrity is deserved.

Although I also enjoy Hitchcock films for the subtler artistic elements which I learned about later, those early frissons of excitement and suspense do come strongly back to mind with any re-viewing: the villain displaying his missing finger in The 39 Steps; the outline of Miss Froy’s name illuminated in the railway carriage window in The Lady Vanishes; people struggling to escape from the doomed aircraft as it fills with sea water in Foreign Correspondent; the traitor falling from the Statue of Liberty in Saboteur.

 

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In the final days of the Cuban revolution?

 

Cuba, that former warm-water bastion of Soviet Communism next door to the USA, is gradually changing, as is widely reported. In recent years there has certainly been a greater government encouragement of private enterprise, and relaxation of the previous restrictions on travelling outside the country. When Fidel Castro finally dies, it is often suggested, the old socialist Cuba will change forever.

However, at present, one thing which the visitor notices, alongside the old American cars and colonial architecture, is that books and posters  and placards celebrating the achievements of the revolution, and encouraging its continuation, are still widely seen.

 

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The slogan at the museum at the Bay of Pigs, or Playa Giron, in the south of Cuba, marking the new government’s defeat of the US-backed invasion in 1961.

 

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A banner to Che Guevara among the mementos in the foyer of the Hotel Nacional in Havana.

 

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The Hotel Nacional grounds were part of the defence fortifications during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962.

 

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The bookstalls which surround the Plaza de Armas in Havana include many of political writings and of the history of the Revolution.

 

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Outside Havana, a commemoration of the 26 of July Movement, the guerrilla group which led the overthrow of the dictator Fulgencio Batista at the start of 1959.

 

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Partly hidden by a van, a sign in Havana advertising the long-established Committees for the Defence of the Revolution.

 

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In the departure lounge at Havana airport, a large poster not advertising tourist attractions but protesting about the imprisonment of the Miami 5. These were five Cuban agents assigned to infiltrate anti-government groups based in Florida who were arrested and convicted by the USA on various espionage charges. Two have now served their sentences and are no longer in prison.

 

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The imposing statue to Che Guevara in Santa Clara in central Cuba. “Until the eternal victory,” translates the engraving.

 

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The Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado, commemorating the successful attack on an armoured train by a group of soldiers led by Che Guevara during the battle of Santa Clara in 1958. This led quickly to Batista’s flight and the assumption to power of the Fidel Castro government.

 

 

 

 

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