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Pigs and toffs

18 January 2013


NO DOUBT the secularist masterminds at the BBC considered that they had driven a final nail into the coffin of Sunday evensong by scheduling Blandings (BBC1) at 6.30 p.m. But, for once, they have miscalculated, because, although no doubt your congregation stayed at home to wallow in that art form closest to the heart of all traditional Anglicans, the works of P. G. Wodehouse, they will flood back next weekend, having discovered how poor an adaptation this is.

Wodehouse's comic genius lies in the classic balance of his plots, and the stylised dance of etiolated toffs around a few favourite themes; but hamming them up, as we find here, wrecks this complex bloom. Much as I admire Timothy Spall, he is miscast as the Earl of Emsworth, his touching innocence lacking the gravitas necessary to make funny his obsession with fat pigs and his retreat from adult responsibility.

A far better candidate for the role would have been the subject of an obituary tribute later the same evening: Sir Patrick Moore: Astronomer, Broadcaster and Eccentric (BBC4). This was not a particularly profound exploration, but there were moving contributions from professional and amateur astronomers, all attesting to his generosity and approachability, and, in The Sky at Night - the world's longest-running TV programme - his almost single-handed popularisation of the study of the heavens.

Stargazing Live (BBC2, Tuesday to Thursday of last week) was a fitting tribute to Sir Patrick's stature, if only in the sense that it was considered necessary to fill the void he has left by not one, but two people: the professional scientist Brian Cox, and the comedian Dara Ó Briain. This ranged from the most sophisticated centres, such as Jodrell Bank and NASA, sandwiched between live visits to a field full of enthusiastic amateurs.

Since this was England, the cloud cover meant that they could not see a thing. But the programme communicated a palpable excitement. We now know that there is water throughout the universe; the most distant bodies we can observe are so far away that we are seeing, in effect, the entire history of the cosmos; and the Mars rover seems to be on the verge of finding the remains of life itself. Next time, perhaps, there could be a third expert - someone capable of exploring the theological significance of our knowledge.

The grubbiness of our sublunary life is the partial theme of Spies of Warsaw (BBC4, Wednesday of last week). Not knowing Alan Furst's novel, I cannot comment on how a faithful realisation this is, but certainly the atmosphere and setting of Europe immediately before the Second World War is evocatively recreated. It is eminently watchable, but how much of the menace and tension comes from hindsight? We know how obscene was the Nazi reality, and how hideous the approaching fate was of nations and peoples, but it is too easy just to set up your heroes as among the few who share our privileged knowledge. The best spy writing gives a far stronger sense of how morally compromising the whole business necessarily becomes. Here, lip service is given to this concept, but the production focuses on the glamour of the leading characters.


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