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Bach was not bleak

HOW might we expect BBC1, the world’s greatest TV station, to bid farewell to Bleak House, its classic series, realisation of one of the greatest English works of fiction, exemplar of its global superiority in producing costume drama? As the closing credit rolled into oblivion the most appropriate encomium the continuity girl could manage was: "Well, well. There you go."

If only this bathetic apostrophe contrasted with the delights of the production itself! But no: episode followed episode, glumly confirming my initial suspicions. This adaptation consistently missed the mark, upsetting Dickens’s delicate balance of character and situation, with interpolated scenes, and diction, phrases, and concepts clunkingly out of period.

Why does this matter? It might be fiction, but it’s about serious stuff. In a world of false and self-seeking charity, Esther Summerson is the moving embodiment of true Christian virtue. Her self-abnegation and ability quietly to bring harmony and peace to those around her are the essence of goodness. Suffering and scarred, she attains happiness and true love. It’s a resolution that matters, that helps us to reflect on our own moral standing — or lack of it.

The best thing about the adaptation is that it drove us back to the novel itself, to rediscover there a world infinitely richer, more complex, more grotesque, fiercer in its condemnation of corruption and evil — and far, far funnier.

A bit of Radio 3’s glorious Bachfest has leeched into TV, with some more in the 21st-Century Bach (BBC2) series of the master’s organ works played by John Scott Whitely on historic German instruments. Finding it requires some detective work, but the effort is well repaid.

As in the first series, the camera shows us lots of mechanical gubbins: trackers, springs, and pallets slide and move as the music is played. Behind the glorious Baroque façade is revealed the no-less-important Baroque technology. This earths the music — and somehow helps it speak more clearly of heaven.

In Advent we are actually allowed to see a real act of worship on TV. Unfortunately, I discerned little of Advent in Stranger in the Manger? (BBC1, Sunday). At St Mark’s, Tollington Park, the music all belonged to Christmas. The tree was decorated, the John Prologue was read. Cannot these people cope with deferred gratification?

Contrary to Canon Law, the clergy officiated in lay dress. The "special prayer for today" was not the Advent 4 collect from BCP, ASB or CW. Luckily, the time spared by avoiding all liturgical and sacramental action enabled us to have two addresses, including a plug for the Alpha course. It was absolutely frightful.


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