WE REALLY ought to be thankful for that rarest of creatures: a
90- minute programme on mainstream TV all about prayer. Although it
was not quite the exposition of the way of contemplation which we
would most like, there was a real Christian element to be savoured,
if only in opposition to the clear sympathies expressed.
BBC4's Pussy Riot: A punk prayer (Monday of last week)
told the story of the three female pop musicians arrested for their
protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, and the
unedifying sight of the full wrath of the country's Church and
State bearing down on them. There was a seamless editing of
interviews with the women and their parents, video footage of their
rehearsals and performance, and newsreel of their trial and appeal
We might think that Russians have a great deal to protest about:
Putin's nationalism, his manipulation of the rules to ensure
decades of power, and his suppression of any challenge to his
leadership provide legitimate material for dissident artists. The
dangers they face make their inspiration, our own punk movement,
seem a pampered art-college efflorescence, quickly assimilated by
the British Establishment.
This was something else altogether, an expression of rage and
impotence against the unholy alliance between Orthodoxy and the
government, a return almost to Tsarist sanctification for the
political élite. Their protest was de- liberately blasphemous, with
prostrations and crossings and Rachmaninov's "Hymn to the Virgin"
cut and pasted into the mix. It caused genuine offence, all the
more shocking in the context of so recent a rehabilitation of
Christianity - the cathedral itself has been rebuilt after being
dynamited by the Soviets.
To believers emerging after decades of persecution, such
cavortings merited severe punishment. But the implacable legal
process seemed like breaking butterflies on a wheel. How much was
their protest mere self-indulgence? Did it, as one commentator
said, set back for years the cause of Russian liberalism? Serious
analysis might conclude that Pussy Riot's action was closer to the
radical gospel of Jesus than the hierarchy's outraged calls for
vengeance. Perhaps it was, after all, a prayer.
Rather less savage a critique of totalitarianism was on display
in Ambassadors, BBC2's new comedy series (Wednesdays).
Judging by the first episode, this breaks new ground, the comedy
set in a framework of political manoeuvrings, and daring to include
that one element that comedy must avoid at all costs - a climactic
speech of genuine passion.
David Mitchell is the incompetent ambassador to Tazbekistan;
Robert Webb his effective but compromised assistant. Against all
his instincts, Mitchell scuppers a £2-billion helicopter deal with
the corrupt regime so that he can save the life of a UK
human-rights activist. Whitehall is furious - and so is the
activist, who considers that martyrdom would be far better
publicity for his cause.
Who would have expected such serious moral dilemmas to be
explored in a comedy, especially one with rather good jokes?