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21 December 2012

City of faith


YOU cannot understand history without understanding religion: at last, the popular media are beginning to get the message. Rome: A history of the Eternal City (BBC4, Wednesdays) explicitly employs religious faith and practice as the lens through which the story of the great city is brought into focus.

So far, we have seen two episodes, and I am sorry to say that I found the first, pagan, chapter more gripping than the second, which chronicled the triumph of Christianity. Simon Sebag Montefiore presents us with fascinating details. Did you know that the oldest surviving monument in Rome is the great drain, the Cloaca Maxima, dating from the sixth century?

Sebag Montefiori found a number of links between pagan and Christian eras, with more emphasis on continuity than radical disjunction. The great Christian idea was martyrdom, the shock presented to the pagan mindset by believers' being willing to suffer a hideous death rather than renounce their new faith by offering sacrifice to the gods. This led to the cult of the saints and their relics.

With more martyrs than anywhere else, and early pontiffs willing to send shavings of holy bones to distant bishops, Rome was the epicentre of the Christian world, the popes filling the vacuum left by the transfer of imperial power to Byzantium.

I find Sebag Montefiori's delivery over-insistent, and he employs the terms "holy" and "sacred" rather too frequently, without much critical analysis or reference to anywhere else - surely, until modern times, every culture considered its main city a centre of religious as well as temporal power? And the background music is inappropriate: "Scheherazade" is not exactly suitable wallpaper to accompany an account of early medieval Christianity.

In the vicarage, we have been following the series Last Tango in Halifax (BBC1, Tuesday of last week) because it is set in Mrs Craig's native land, and, as is the way in such situations, squeals of delight as this or that much-loved landmark is recognised are balanced by the groans of excoriation caused by solecisms of accent or vocabulary.

This is a tale of old love, as former flames Alan and Celia find each other after the demise of their spouses. Their late-flowering bliss is the calm centre, whipping up a storm of passion among their offspring, whose marital and sexual situations are exemplars of the relational mess that is contemporary Britain. It is wonderfully observed and acted - but neither plot nor dialogue bear serious scrutiny.

Despite this, it is somehow redeemed by a touching faith in, well, redemption: however chaotic and anger-filled the situations, we feel confident that all will, movingly, turn out well in the end.

The Hour (BBC2, Wednesday and Thursday of last week), the drama series about a '50s TV news series, has come to a thrilling climax. I was initially rather sniffy about it, considering that too much frisson is generated by the retro aspect of the production. Look at their clothes! They are all smoking! But this second series has been performed with such bravura style as to produce TV drama of a high order, and a gallery of distinct yet complex characters of whom we long to see more.


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