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From Lucy to Jackie

10 May 2013

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PAPAL encyclicals, statements from the Archbishops' Council, even my own sermons - all pale into insignificance as vehicles for reinforcing or challenging contemporary morals, when compared with the effect of popular TV sitcoms. The medium of story and humour has a subtle and insidious influence - all the more powerful for being, for the most part, unacknowledged and invisible.

The United States of Television: America in primetime (BBC2, Saturday), Alan Yentob's analysis of the genre, examined how the portrayal of women has changed over half a century, from a model of domestic perfection to the subversive depiction of dysfunctional lives; and from uncomplaining service to calling the shots.

You can use comedy to soothe and mollify, or it can be a revolutionary call to change behaviour and attitudes. The distance between I Love Lucy and Nurse Jackie - between a wife whose unsuccessful attempts to take part in her husband's band were taken as inherently ludicrous, and a nurse whose drug habit is a logical strategy for juggling the impossible demands of motherhood and a caring profession - is about as far as one might travel in a lifetime.

Roseanne, Sex and the City, and Desperate Housewives all offer milestones on the road towards emancipation and independence, whose big story is best understood as the acknowledgment that perfection is, despite what was hoped in the 1950s, impossible.

The best thing was that all these impressive characters were women; the worst was that, for a programme about some of the funniest-ever TV series, the overall effect was rather sad, suggesting that the search for an adequate way to find and express yourself is inherently doomed.

The Genius of Marie Curie: The woman who lit up the world (BBC2, Friday) was an exceptional study of a unique storming of the bastions of male privilege and prejudice. Curie is the only person ever to win Nobel prizes in two categories of science - and yet the second was nearly withheld because of her alleged adulterous affair with a fellow researcher.

Many male scientists had far more irregular private lives, but that did not seem to matter to the committee. Curie's exceptional scientific ability could be countenanced only if she conformed to an almost saintly persona; it was unacceptable for her to be a sexual being. She won back her reputation by her daring personal treatment, by X-ray, of wounded soldiers on the battlefields of the First World War. Being an angel of mercy was perfectly satisfactory; extending the frontiers of science was not.

Dave Allen: God's own comedian (BBC2, Monday of last week) almost justified its title; for Allen did use, especially in the first half of his career, a remarkably high proportion of material that lampooned the Church and the clergy. The jokes were riskier than I had remembered, and were taken seriously enough at the time to subject him to an IRA death-threat.

Allen's schooling at the hands of Irish nuns gave him a lifetime's desire to mock hypocrisy and induced guilt. This was a highly personal tribute, with affectionate reminiscences from his wife, children, and colleagues.

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