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Cathedral riot

01 November 2013

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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 hearing.

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?

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