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Taking the strain

21 September 2012

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YOU could not expect a column that seeks to grab the attention of Church of England clerics to ignore a programme about the railway, and The InterCity 125: The age of the train (BBC4, Thursday of last week) had the added advantage of telling a story with surprisingly unfamiliar resonances. This was not a tale of decline and disaster, but, on the contrary, was upbeat and celebratory.

Peter Parker's appointment as BR supremo, in 1976, initiated a period of success. Rival teams worked on two projects: the radical solution was to build a 150mph train that would tilt to negotiate over-sharp bends; the more pragmatic was to push the conventional system up to 125mph, with a power unit at the front and back, and a new level of comfort and service for passengers.

Parker, a socialist and man of the theatre, had flair and style, and sought to recover pre-war glamour for express trains - and, surprisingly, it worked. The InterCity 125 services, thanks perhaps to the egregious Jimmy Savile's irritating TV adverts, were popular, and reversed 30 years of decline, setting up a new generation of out-of-town commuting. When the tilting train was finally brought into service, it made people feel sick, and was quietly shelved.

The most dated element of the programme was the contemporary clips of TV comedians - including Ronnie Barker - who wheeled out tired and predictable anti-BR gags, sometimes crossing into territory that now seems really offensive.

Two documentary series, The Treasures of Ancient Rome (BBC4, Mondays), and Vikings (BBC2, Tuesdays), provide us with a helpful exercise in compare-and-contrast. I would expect one to warm our hearts with sophisticated civilisation, while the other would chill our blood with hairy berserkers. But these are, to some extent, revisionist accounts that set out to overturn our assumptions.

Last week's episode on Roman art presented extremes of sex and violence: the first-century emperors, exact contemporaries of the birth of Christianity, were seduced by their assumption of divine status to throw off all moral restraint, and commissioned ever more extreme pleasure palaces to satisfy their debauched taste.

The Vikings, we were assured, managed to live untainted, pursuing a code of honour, reputation, and glory. Their longboats, recovered from the great ship burials, are creations of grace and beauty, and not merely instruments for exporting murder and rapine. Even their social organisation offers surprises: while Rome never managed to sustain a reigning empress, the Oseburg ship burial contained the bones not of a warrior chieftain, but of two women.

For high-quality comedy drama, I can recommend Lilyhammer (BBC4, Tuesday of last week). A Bronx mafioso must escape the attentions of former associates whom he has shopped to the Feds; recalling the 1994 Winter Olympics' impression of Lillehammer as the last place on earth where anyone might come looking for him, this is his chosen relocation.

His only aim is to draw no attention to himself; the satisfying comedy is that, of course, he cannot avoid doing so. Gentle application of (unintended) Mob techniques make him both a local hero and an object of official scrutiny. Can he maintain his cover?

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