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A story in photos

17 May 2013


YOU do not need to be a Luddite to recognise that not all technologies have been improved with the advent of the digital age. Compare the photographs taken by John McCarthy for In a Prince's Footsteps (Radio 4, weekdays: photos can be seen on the Radio 4 website), and those by Francis Bedford, taken in 1862, and you will see the point.

The subjects are the same, and, in some cases, eerily alike: scenes from the Middle East, featuring both the obvious tourist attractions such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives; and the less familiar sites, such as the Mar Saba monastery. McCarthy's colour photos are well-framed and competently exposed; but Bedford's black-and-white photos have a texture and depth that are engrossing.

More impressive still is that Bedford's photographs were the product of an immense amount of labour: carrying around plates, chemicals, and boxes; setting up the shot; and then immediately having to make the prints themselves, in as much dark as the deserts and his equipment would afford him. They are testaments to the pioneering age of professional photography and also to the start of the modern era of tourism.

Bedford was in a party that accompanied the then Prince of Wales on his peregrinations around the Middle East. Many of the sites that he photographed were soon to become popular destinations for affluent Western Europeans, as well as areas of increased political interest for the British, French, and Russian powers.

One of the themes running through McCarthy's excellent series is the decline of Ottoman authority in the region in the mid-19th century. Another is the durability of religious identity: Mar Saba, with only 20 monks now, still clings to the rocks above the Kidron River with as much tenacity as do Christian sects to their claims over the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the disputed "immovable ladder", pictured in both the McCarthy and Bedford photos.

Following hard upon his play The Fewness of his Words about clerical abuse, Hugh Costello's latest drama, The Guest of St Peter's (Radio 4, Friday), dealt with another near-hypothetical dilemma for the Roman Catholic Church: what would happen if a pope who had resigned became the focus of dissent against his successor?

I liked this offering principally because, whatever one thought about the realism of the situation, this was a drama that kept you guessing to the end. In particular, what was the papal secretary, Cardinal Sastre, really up to? His Machiavellian role was comparable to the great Francis Urquhart's "You may think that; I couldn't possibly comment" in House of Cards, and the understated hint about the fate of the reinstated Pope was nicely played.

There is little chance of Rowan Williams' getting caught up in similar shenanigans. On Good Morning Sunday with Clare Balding (Radio 2), he was even good enough to echo the new Lambeth Palace agenda by talking about tax avoidance and business ethics. The most challenging question of the day came - by proxy - from a schoolboy whom Lord Williams had encountered on a recent trip: "What would you do in the event of a zombie apocalypse?"

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