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Dangerous plots

06 July 2012

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WHAT with all the footer and tennis clogging up the schedules, there is not much TV on which I am even marginally qualified to offer comment; and finding programmes to satisfy the Fotherington-Thomases of this world, who are far happier daydreaming introspectively on life's deep outfield, as opposed to joining in the muddied ruck of the combative fray, is harder than usual.

I offer two nuggets from last week, however, both on BBC2. Simon Schama's Shakespeare: Hollow crowns (Friday) was a terrific essay on the Bard's exploration of kingship, presented with a rare historian's verve, offering links not merely with our own Diamond Jubilee concerns, but with Schama's own post-Second World War childhood.

The most powerful theme was the sheer courage of Shakespeare's royal plays. They were presented at a time when perceived criticism could lead to imprisonment or torture, but, also, they were presented directly to the monarch; for Queen Elizabeth's delight in the play was trumped only by that of her successor, James VI and I. He marked his approval of Shakespeare's company by renaming them the King's Men.

Thus Henry V courted danger by reminding everyone that the glories of Agincourt recalled the high point of Elizabeth's personal rhetoric - her rallying of the troops at Tilbury as they faced the Armada - against which her withdrawal into impotent old age was all the more tragic.

Richard II, with its meditation on whether it is ever justified to depose a weak monarch, was shown at the time of Essex's rebellion. Hamlet shockingly presented James I with a re-enactment of his own childhood story: his kingly father murdered, and the murderer marrying the dead man's widow. Above all, King Lear dared to suggest that Lear achieves his true self only when he becomes homeless, naked, and mad.

This is an explicitly Christian trajectory, Schama said, where powerlessness and poverty open the gates of salvation that we close by our pride and will to dominate - not the most flattering story with which to entertain your monarch.

If not quite Shakespeare, the drama series Line of Duty (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) has started off with a satisfying complexity of plot and depth of character. I have no idea whether it is an accurate picture of modern policing, but this tale of mixed motives, interdepartmental rivalry, and the need to achieve targets has, at least, a cohesion that chimes with what we experience of life in Britain today.

A bright young whistleblower has been rewarded for his honesty by being demoted to the unit that investigates potentially corrupt officers. He is assigned to a case that is a petty vendetta against a black cop so outstanding in his ability that his mean-spirited superiors think he must be fiddling something.

The twist is that he does, indeed, harbour a fatal flaw: amid all his heroic detective work, he is covering up for his mistress, who has run over and killed a man while she was drunk. The moral dilemmas are compelling, and, already, we can sense that the first small steps of misdoing will lead inexorably to tragedy.

The cop shop is - instead of the usual grim Victorian slum - bright, shiny, and high tech: the darkness and shadows lie buried within the human heart.

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