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Prayer to no avail

12 April 2013

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EASTER Week was marked by the Lord's Prayer's turning up as dramatic utterance of choice in no fewer than two TV plays. Holding avowed Catholic convictions, I have taken a couple of weeks to tune in to the series Broadchurch (BBC2, Mondays), but it seems clear that the driving impetus is less a celebration of middle-of-the-road ecclesiology than the playing-out of a murder mystery in a town of that name. This is being hailed as our response to the Nordic noir genre of detective dramas.

The parallels are clear: the murder of an innocent, suspicions of child sex-abuse, and moral compromise all add to the complexity. Suspicion points to the loner newsagent, Jack, who is forced to sell the very papers that are whipping up a lynch mob for him.

It is he who resorts to reciting the Paternoster - but to no avail: by the end of the episode, his corpse is found on the shoreline. The Vicar plays a more sympathetic part than we have come to hope for, although his pastoral advice to the mother of the murdered child is pathetically inadequate.

It is just possible that he is being set up as a prime suspect for a later episode, and this leads to my general judgement: despite the stellar cast and excellent direction, the writing and plotting is not, in comparison with the Scandinavian models, good enough; an authentic sense of despair and outrage at a community's defilement is adequately inhabited by neither characters nor storyline.

The Village is BBC1's current Sunday-evening costume offering, and it, too, presents an underlying sense of comparison: this is the sordid truth about what life in rural England around the time of the Great War was really like. All the top TV actors not booked for Broadchurch have been signed up for this, and they throw themselves wholeheartedly into this tale of unrelenting poverty on a Derbyshire farm, and snobbery at t'big house.

The external force that throws it all into relief is a suffragette, Martha, the daughter of the Nonconformist minister, who turns up to wreak havoc in the breast of labourer and toff alike, while antagonising drinkers at the local by quoting the new laws against their sabbath drinking. It is these denizens of the snug who turn against her, reciting the Lord's Prayer to discomfit her.

Church and chapel are set in apposition: while the congregation assembling for matins all turn their faces to the wall so as not to gaze on Lord Allingham's disfigurement, the chapel folk hear Martha's papa (robed incorrectly, surely, in surplice and white stole) deliver an anti-war tirade.

The production's intentions are admirable, and it achieves levels of dramatic intensity that engage us. But we had, in last Sunday's final minutes, a hanging, a baby delivered by a ten-year-old brother, and a cow that will save the family brought home in triumph.

It combines Thomas Hardy's unrelenting gloom with D. H. Lawrence's insights into how sexual passion simultaneously redeems and destroys - but the hectic stirring-in of every conceivable ingredient makes it, for me, teeter on the edge of that other revelation of rural England: Cold Comfort Farm.

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