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Atavistic impulses

14 June 2013


WE ALL agree that nostalgia is not as good as it used to be - but last week's TV may cause us to revise the truism. The Coronation: 60th anniversary service (BBC1, Tuesday of last week) showed no flagging in the British ability to remain exactly the same as ever, while changing out of all recognition.

The informality of the occasion - no morning dress required, hardly anyone bowing as the Queen passed - fooled no one, as we witnessed an atavistic revisiting of immemorial impulse; fealty to the sacral monarch also underlined by the hearty cheers elicited from that hotbed of republicanism, the BBC, as she officially opened the rebuilt Broadcasting House (Fri-day).

The People's Coronation with David Dimbleby (BBC1, Monday of last week) wove the presenter's story of his father's commentary on the rite into a retelling of the na-tional sense of hope and reawakening, of a country still suffering as a result of the Second World War, wrought by crowning the young and beautiful Queen.

There was a pleasing circularity to all this, as the 1953 coronation effected the coming of age of television itself - the moment when national moments would be witnessed by all. David Dimbleby was a persuasive guide to how great a change it signalled in society.

It would be worth, though, someone making a documentary on what has been lost, as well as what has been gained; for the sense that everything is now acted out with a view to how well it will look on camera may not be the greatest achievement of humankind. Tues-day's live broadcast, for all its excellences, showed deficient historical understanding in those who ought to know better.

The Abbey's surveyor should know that the tiers of seating erected for the Coronation were no unique innovation, merely the latest example of a once commonplace transformation of great churches; and the most wonderful aspect of the Coronation's music was not the choirboys: what I doubt we will ever hear again are the greatest opera singers and players honoured to form a choir and orchestra to perform for their monarch.

The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England (BBC2, Thursday of last week) was Melvyn Bragg's telling of the story of William Tyndale. He presented a passionate defence of everyone's right to read the word of God in his or her own language - a theme not entirely unrelated to the televising of the Coronation. This was an even more revolutionary step, deposing for ever the power of the clergy, and the Church. It actually formed the English language - pithy, forceful, flexible - and the English political and social character.

All this is true, but I had not realised that Tyndale was quite as unknown as Bragg makes out; and his case was weakened by one- sidedness. Thomas More was not entirely wrong in his fear of what floodgates would be opened by holding up the whole tradition of theology and church order to ridicule; and large numbers of Englishmen deplored the Reformation, and lost their lives trying to reverse it. Medieval mystery plays, for example, prove that ordinary people knew the Bible's story perfectly well.

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