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
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.