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Surprised by Lewis

02 November 2006

I HAVE long considered that some flavours of Christianity take great comfort from being persecuted: if the world is against them, they must be doing God's will. A current trend in British television must be a great trial to them; for we see more and more mainstream, even primetime, programmes dealing sympathically with issues of our faith. Even Evangelical Christians are treated with interest and respect.

C. S. Lewis: Beyond Narnia (BBC2, Friday) was a good example. The release of the new film version of his children's fantasy novels would surely until recently have been a hook on which to hang a throroughgoing hatchet-job, mercilessly dissecting the author and academic, presenting his faith and writings as unassimilated responses to childhood psychological trauma (not, it seems to me, a particularly difficult thesis to sustain).

On the contrary, this was a warm and generous account, telling his story in his own words in a series of flashback dramatic reconstructions, supposedly recounted in his old age. The early loss of his mother, the distant father, the cruel boarding school, his academic genius, his proud atheism - all these were presented as simply and directly as his subsequent wrestle with faith and painful conversion.

The extraordinary relationship with Joy Gresham, leading to the bizarre paper marriage with her, undertaken merely as a device to enable her to stay in England, her tragic cancer that awakened the floodgates of deep and mutual love between them just before the desolation of her death, which challenged the faith for which he was now a worldwide apologist - it all made me feel far more positive towards the man, and could even persuade me to give his writings another chance.

The acting and production were outstanding, wholly convincing: we could almost smell the discomfort of interwar Oxford, its mixture of high-mindedness and heartiness, dull clothes and bad food.

Lewis, an anti- or perhaps simply a non-Darwinian, would probably think little could be learned from Chimp Week (BBC1), a whole week of films following a clan of our closest relations in the jungle of Tanzania. That the chief protagonists were named Freud and Frodo would hardly have changed his mind - but I found the first programme fascinating.

Perhaps the commentator was exaggerating when he assured us that this is "just like any human community": I have never found that my authority role has meant that "the leader can have his pick of the females."

Any sentimental view of nature as sweet and lovely until corrupted by wicked human evil was painfully disabused by this protrayal of violence, power politics, and lust. I wonder as usual about the effect of the camera crew: do chimps, just like their human cousins, quickly learn to act up when they know they're on television?

Any hope that human life has developed beyond the jungle was knocked on the head by Sweeney Todd (BBC1, Tuesday of last week), a revolting dramatisation of the murderous barber, wringing every drop of gore from the disease and squalor of 18th-century London. It was absolutely disgusting - and extremely well done.

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