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Live history

THERE was a great deal of religion on television last week, although not where you might expect to find it.

Like a fool, I latched on to Channel 4's The English Civil War (Thursday of last week) only in time to see the last episode. Although it's now too late to urge you to see it (until it's repeated), it was terrific, and an example of how to televise history. The key is to trust the material and the period, and trust your audience to be prepared to work a little.

In this final episode, the script was drawn entirely from the transcripts of the trials of the regicides: Charles II's judicial revenge on those who were responsible for the execution of his father. The words, the clothes, and the demeanour were right: these actors spoke, moved and looked like 17th-century Englishmen. The lighting was also right - that is, there wasn't much of it. Only the music was modern, and it was excellent, because it had no slushy Hollywood strings.

Twenty-nine men were tried; 19 were sentenced to life imprisonment; ten were hanged, drawn and quartered. Without glorying in gore, we were left in no doubt about the horror of this barbarism. And yet it was made clear that, compared with the rest of contemporary Europe, this terrible episode of our history was at least conducted according to due process of law.

What struck me most was the way in which God, and deep seriousness about his will, were present in all the protagonists, and especially among the wretched Puritans condemned to death.

A succession of similarly bloody moments was covered in Turks at the Royal Academy (Tuesday of last week), proof again that Channel 5 offers more than the rubbish popularly ascribed to it. This exhibition covering 1000 years of Turkish art was introduced to us by Boris Johnson (his great-grandfather was the interior minister to the last Sultan of Turkey).

The trouble with Mr Johnson in a role like this is that it's impossible to take him seriously. His triumph is that he doesn't take himself seriously either, and so it becomes clear that, underneath the schoolboy japery, he is passionate about this stuff, and succeeds in kindling a similar passion in us.

Of course, the objects on display are fabulous, intricate, subtle, and sophisticated, especially when compared with what Christian Europe was producing for much of the time. Religion and theological issues were central to this culture (and, before 985, this did not mean Islam: there is Christian and Buddhist material on display), and the programme took this seriously, celebrating how faith and theology are the key to understanding this art.

Third, a programme actually from the religious-television stable, but not trumpeting the fact (a far better way of communicating religion, in my view) The Sun Says Sorry (BBC1, Monday of last week) explored the process of forgiveness by means of contemporary cases. The headline was provided by the Sun newspaper seeking forgiveness from the people of Liverpool, who, 15 years on, refuse to forget the tabloid's accusation that criminal behaviour caused the Hillsborough disaster.

To be moved to acknowledge the moral stature of the editor of this particular paper was something I never expected to admit, but he came out of it admirably. Even more impressive was the Donovan family, as its members sought to forgive the thugs who had battered their son to death. They were clear that it is because they are Christians, and that is what Christians do. A wonderful programme for Lent, and worth any number of sermons.

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