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Boilers in oils

03 May 2013


I HAD planned to review Jerusalem: An archaeological mystery story, a documentary propounding the theory that modern research disproves the accepted story of the expulsion of Jews from their city after the AD 70 uprising, scheduled to be shown on BBC4 on Thursday of last week; but at the last minute its screening was cancelled.

The scenario of dispersion and exile plays a central part in the history of the Early Church, and it seemed likely to be well worth our attention. Why wasn't it shown? Digging around unearths a complex and unedifying story. The director, Ilan Ziv, states that his film was not archaeological, but an examination of the ideological and historical underpinnings of contemporary Middle Eastern politics, largely built on what he believes to be the myth of Jewish exile. It appears that anxiety about potential reaction drove the BBC into pusillanimous retreat.

Although it offered a similarly radical revision of accepted attitudes, less controversy will probably be engendered by The Genius of Turner: Painting the Industrial Revolution (BBC2, Friday). This proposed that we should see the great artist less as a portrayer of the grandeur of nature, and more as a man of his time, intoxicated by the technological revolution that was transforming Britain.

It looked terrific, despite the distracting dramatic reconstructions and second-rate cartoons. The harnessing of the power of steam, the exponential leap in speed of travel on land and sea, the terrific visual effect of furnace and boiler - instead of treating these as despoilers and desecrators of the beauty of nature, Turner celebrated them with unparalleled experiment, extending the possibility of what can be done by oils on canvas.

Some of the claims seemed to me excessive - surely The Fighting Temeraire is essentially elegiac rather than a paean to the efficacy of steam tugs - yet, overall, I was persuaded. Turner showed the world a new source of the sublime not in the glories of nature, but in human industry.

More revisionism was occasioned by Rupert Murdoch: Battle with Britain (BBC2, Sunday). Murdoch has been a convenient demon king, singlehandedly coarsening and cheapening Britain's public discourse, pandering to the least discerning audience, and accumulating unchecked power and wealth.

But the thesis of this film suggested otherwise: despite the brashness and populism, Murdoch did have a sort of admirable moral purpose - to cut through what he saw as the cosy, hypocritical, old-boy network of British public life, to take seriously what ordinary people wanted, and give it to them.

It all went wrong when he allowed successive Prime Ministers to cosy up to him, desperate to win his favour - and Tony Blair was more guilty of this than Lady Thatcher ever was - so that News International became thoroughly entwined with the Establishment that Murdoch thought he was attacking. The intimacy with politicians and police encouraged his operatives to feel above the law.

To my surprise, the story felt close to a classic tragedy: a fatal flaw played out, ambition leading first to overwhelming success, then humiliating defeat.

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