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Television: No relief for Tess

01 October 2008

by Gillean Craig

NOT SO long ago, the eruption on to our Sunday-evening screens of a classic series heralded the approach of Advent. Nowadays, one turns up even before we have put the clocks back. Doing nothing to aid our self-esteem, the Church of England is seen to do little to assuage the tragedy of the unfortunate heroine in BBC1’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

In the second episode, Tess has to baptise and — the parson having refused — bury her illegitimate baby. In last week’s episode, on her wedding night, emboldened by Angel Clare’s confession of sexual experience, she likewise confesses her own fall from purity.

Alas! Despite having a father and no fewer than two brothers in Holy Orders, Angel has not learned enough about Christian forgiveness to reciprocate her generous absolu­tion. Although he admits that she was “more sinned against than sin­ning”, in reality it changes nothing — for him, the marriage is effect­ively over. He abandons her, sailing to Brazil to start a new life.

Hardy will have nothing to do with sentimental Christian notions of making a new start, of guilt being cleansed. Despite her best efforts to be honest, Tess can do nothing that will atone for the loss of her virginity. The cruel and capricious gods continue their sport with her: however hard she tries, she is denied the possibility of virtue.

This bleak fable is brilliantly realised: the characters and situa­tions draw us in as authentic, and the settings and scenery are a wonderful evocation of Victorian Dorset. All is not gloom: Tess’s tragedy contrasts with great natural beauty and the possibility of love and happiness — but never for her, nor for those caught up in her story.

Her fate will decisively catch up with her at Stonehenge, the subject of Timewatch (BBC2, Saturday). This showed us the progress and results of this year’s research excavation in the very centre of the monument, and sought to convince us that the new evidence supported the theory that it was constructed not as a giant sundial, nor as an astral observatory, but as a place of healing.

What mattered was not the great iconic trilithons, but the small bluestones, dragged all the way from Pembrokeshire: the excavated soil was littered with their fragments, chipped off by pilgrims as talismans, much as one might fill a bottle with Lourdes water. Although fascinat­ing, this seemed rather longer on supposition than decisive proof. Anyway, it did not heal poor Tess.

She might have done better to follow the example of The Virgin Daughters (Channel 4, Thursday of last week), a study of the Purity Movement in the United States, in which girls pledge that they will abstain from sex until their wedding night, and from prohibited sexual activity, which, we learned, includes kissing a fiancé.

The heart of the film was a Father Daughter Purity Ball, one of the weirdest things I have seen on TV. The reason why girls take unsuitable boyfriends, apparently, is that they do not have the right relationship with their fathers. The solution is for the fathers and daughters to put on the most formal dress possible, make a truly embarrassing pledge to each other, then lay a white rose at the foot of a wooden cross.

The things Americans can do and say while keeping a straight face are one of the world’s great mysteries.

Gillean Craig

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