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Television: Faith in comedy

11 August 2010

by David Winter

WHAT was it about Rev, which finished its six-week run on BBC2 last week? Loved by the critics and, it would seem, by many Church Times readers, it drew misgivings from some Christians, clerical and lay. The press judgement has been vir­tually unanimous — even A. A. Gill, in The Sunday Times, described it as “funny, touching, and unexpectedly spiritual”.

So what was there for a Christian not to like about Rev? Well, there was the crude language, occasionally dramatically justified, sometimes gratuitous. There were a few ec­clesiastical bloomers; and one episode was unkind to Charis­matics. But when a national news­paper claims that “no television programme in the past ten years has presented the Anglican Church in such a human and sympathetic light,” it really does seem churlish to nit-pick.

Rev was labelled a comedy, and, from personal experience, I know how hard it is to do. At its best, it is life-changing: Christopher Fry described it as a narrow escape from despair into faith. At its worst, it is trivial, predictable, and desperate. Perhaps that is why the BBC tends to try out new comedy formats in the holiday season, when it fondly imagines few people are watching.

Last week, BBC2 launched Roger and Val Have Just Got In (Friday). This stars Dawn French and Alfred Molina, which may have fuelled ex­pectations of laughs galore. In the event, it was sub-Pinter — rambling dialogue between a married couple with a faulty vacuum cleaner. Like Pinter, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. Unlike Pinter, it really isn’t.

It was mildly amusing, and yet oddly irritating. Val was a blend of various Dawn French characters, manic rather than funny. The plot concerned a missing guarantee for the wretched vacuum cleaner, but, when it was found, Val tore it up. Not the sort of programme to keep you awake at night.

BBC Proms 2010 (BBC2, Satur­day) was not comedy, but it did represent something akin to an escape from despair into faith. The concert was performed by the World Orchestra for Peace, formed by the late Georg Solti to mark the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.

His idea was to invite for an oc­casional concert the finest musicians from all over the world. To his surprise, everyone accepted. As every one of them was a principal, there might have been bruised egos when it came to the seating arrange­ments. Solti, and his present-day successor, Valery Gergiev, simply decided where each one should be seated, and then, consulting the musicians, moved them around to suit the different works. It has never been a problem, Gergiev said.

Saturday’s concert featured Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. I suppose the purists would rather listen to it on Radio 3 in surround stereo, but there was something to be gained by the visual impact of seeing musicians from all over the world playing together in a superb team.

Can an orchestra really be a force for world peace, the presenter, Katie Derham, asked Gergiev. Yes, he claimed. The orchestra demonstrates the healing power of unity. They work, talk, play, and create together. As a team drawn from many na­tions, they can make a statement: it’s better together.

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