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Pleasing portrayal

20 September 2013

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SO COUNTER-CULTURAL a phenomenon is worth celebrating: last week, BBC2 broadcast a drama in which a Church of England priest was portrayed as a figure of sanity and humour. Has the tide finally turned? Or is it the flaring of the last spark from a dying fire, our sacred profession now to be treated not with satire or ridicule, just completely ignored. Let us savour the moment while it lasts.

The Wipers Times (Wednesday of last week) was based on historical fact, the production of an unofficial newspaper by Sherwood Foresters fighting in the trenches of the First World War, prompted by their discovery of an abandoned printing press. Two officers discover a gift for journalism - or, at least, facetious commentary on the ghastliness of their predicament - and colleagues deliver a stream of material that enables them to churn out issue after issue of "something like Punch - but with jokes".

The main butt of their humour was the cushy lives of the General Staff, directing the war while safely behind the lines. They, in turn, wished to close down this hotbed of sedition, but the paper was protected by a senior officer (Michael Palin), who realised that this might be the safety valve necessary to avoid despair.

The film was a celebration of what we like to think of as a particularly British trait: when confronted by hell, the best response is to write a few sketches, and get up a concert party. It raised the matter of the profound value of humour in the face of horror, and the supreme importance of the unimportant. And the Padre? He had a small but vital walk-on part, invoking the Almighty to obstruct the Staff's attempt to shut down an impromptu pub opened by the same gang of jokers.

This was not the greatest play -slack at times, not perfectly judged - but it was by turns hilarious and poignant, and beautifully acted.

In somewhat different vein, Robert Preston Goes Shopping (BBC2, Mondays) is a documentary series about something else we are rather good at: the British obsession with retail. Last week's episode chronicled the consumer boom of the 1980s and '90s - the glory days of Tesco, Topshop, and Ikea, and the rise of cheap credit.

The Tesco Clubcard not only gave better gifts than Green Shield stamps: it enabled the company to know exactly what you bought, and when, enabling it to decide what stock to have available, and therefore offer the lowest price.

It was not all good. The ruthless forcing down of supply price destroyed British manufacture; small shops were no longer viable; British farmers had to accept prices lower than their husbandry costs; clothing became so cheap as to be disposable; and the foreign factories making the goods were death-traps, scarcely paying living wages. Credit-card debt rose, encouraged by the comforting new morality of consumption.

We might be surprised by the extent to which Preston, as an economist, is telling essentially a tale of ethics, and he emphasises one key moment: Sunday opening - the point when the desire to shop overcame any restraint in the pursuit of Mammon, ending all residual sense that England might be a Christian country.

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