Television: Faith amid the trash

13 February 2008

by Gillean Craig

“IT IS BETTER to live in a rubbish dump if that’s where Jesus is.” That is just the kind of thing you expect the vicar to say at the start of Lent; an exhortatory metaphor to encourage his flock to turn away from the cosy securities of their everyday lives, and dare them to encounter the Lord in all the rawness and danger of real experience. (Well, it’s the kind of thing people expect me to say).

Yet in last Friday’s Unreported World (Channel 4) this was a statement of literal fact, explaining the life-choice of a well-to-do Egyptian Copt.

The programme started out full of savage indignation, horrified at the appalling conditions in which the Christians in Cairo are living. They survive by bringing home the spoils of the city’s rubbish dumps, sorting them into stinking heaps, and selling on anything that can possibly be recycled.

As it delved deeper, however, the focus turned to the total disjunction between the Egyptian government’s admirable policies about religious tolerance and freedom, and the reality experienced by the Christian community. Vicious attacks, kidnappings, and threats are all, it was alleged, ignored by the police; indeed, those who should promote the law are often the perpetrators.

There was much hidden-camera footage of clandestine interviews, with shots of security minders and plain-clothes police being given the slip so that the story could be gathered. But it ended with a further twist: the Coptic Church is not collapsing. Although he has had to cut it into the side of a mountain, so as not to attract too much attention, the local priest presides over a 12,000-seater church, and, despite the stink, the rubbish-gathering ghetto creates more than a little security in a dangerous land.

Here we met joyful Christian celebration, attractive enough to encourage those who could afford a far more comfortable life to move in and build their faith. It was a disjointed programme, too short to do justice to its subject, but not at all what we have come to expect from Channel 4 — and all the more welcome for that.

On the same channel, earlier in the week, another stinking and unhealthy city ghetto was portrayed — only a couple of miles from where I sit. City of Vice (Monday of last week) is set not in contemporary but in 18th-century London. This has been the oddest detective series ever. Based on historical fact, it depicts the novelist Henry Fielding and his blind brother John as they set up the Bow Street Runners, London’s first police force, to try to bring order and morality to the lawless streets of our capital.

It is immensely stylish, with powerful characterisation, serious dialogue, and a marvellous visual evocation of the dark and sweaty city, pulsating with life and death. The best thing is that these are not, unlike the heroes in most period dramas, 21st-century liberals dressed up in wigs. They are careless of the needs of the poor, indifferent to the pain they inflict to gain their righteous ends, and suffer from no anachronistic qualms about equal rights.

The plots are extraordinarily confused, however, lost in a maze of unconvincing philosophising. It is worth cherishing as a curiosity, and its absolute conviction of concept and realisation.

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