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Divine inspiration

05 April 2013


"A WELL-REGULATED music to the glory of God" is, no doubt, the aim of your director of music, and surely informed your keeping of Holy Week and Easter - but probably was not quite as fully realised as it was in the life's work of the original formulator of this ambition, the subject of the superlative documentary Bach: A passionate life (BBC2, Holy Saturday).

The director of the Monteverdi Choir, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, distilled for us his own lifetime's study and achievement, with enough acknowledgement of the centrality of Christian faith in Bach's inspiration to make this, for me, almost an adequate recompense for television's abject failure to present broadcasts appropriate to the holiest season of the year.

Sir John Eliot offered us a compelling account of Bach's life, gloriously illustrated by his own choir and orchestra in performance. Paradoxically, despite the focus on the central part played by the composer's faith, this was a (successful) attempt to strip away the pious reverence that dehumanises our picture of Bach. Recent scholarship has presented a far more rounded figure: very aware of his genius, at times too self-assured, uncompromising, and frustrated by the civic and religious authorities that hampered his work.

Sir John Eliot marshalled impressive figures to attest to Bach's singular greatness. The Revd Dr John Drury considered theological aspects; and Philip Pullman volunteered that this music "would persuade me of the existence of God, if I felt inclined to believe in one". The programme's title was splendidly vindicated: not only did it refer to Bach's two great Passions, but it persuaded us that here was a fully human figure, yet producing art of unique divine inspiration.

The Road (BBC4, Easter Day) offered a highly effective meditation on life and death, although I suspect that its director, Marc Isaacs, had not conceived it thus. The A5 is the ancient route of immigrants who seek a better life in London, and the film sought out some of those who settle along it. This was a tribute to the most unexpected of locations, not one in the first rank of pilgrimage des- tinations - the London suburb of Cricklewood. Isaacs found compelling stories of men and women who have left their native lands to make a home here.

Two of them - Peggy, a refugee from Nazi persecution; and Billy, adrift, but sure that he no longer belonged in Ireland - died in the course of filming, and it felt like a personal bereavement, so engaged had we become with them. This was an example of TV's giving attention to unnoticed individuals, observing their lives, and encouraging us to think about our own sense of belonging or alienation.

The palpable joy of the Kashmiri hotel-worker, when his wife was finally granted permission to join him; the extraordinary ménage of the former air stewardess Brigid, whose life's work has become the creation of a palatial rococo home-from-home for foreign students; and the complete Buddhist monastery in a terrace house - all these seemed extraordinary enrichments of our capital, worthy of celebration as signs of richness. Where, it forced us to reflect, is our abiding city?

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