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Down on the farm

10 January 2014


THE Reformation - dontcha just hate it? The older I get, the more convinced I become that in throwing out the bath water of late-medieval doctrinal error, untold babies of basic Christian living were similarly jettisoned.

Strong evidence to support my position was entertainingly adduced by Tudor Monastery Farm Christmas Special (BBC2, Tuesday of last week). Here we saw an everyday story of countryfolk towards the end of Henry VII's reign, where the teachings and rituals of the Church permeated every aspect of their lives. Yet these were not a priest-ridden people, desperate to throw off the shackles of Rome: they appeared to find the practice of their faith challenging and nurturing.

Of course, this is a somewhat optimistic portrayal: no one died of the plague or starvation; no magnate harried the village, burning crops and slaughtering livestock. But the idea that medieval life held any pleasures at all for relatively ordinary people; that their food and drink could be tasty and nutritious; that their monastic overlords were not rapacious hypocrites but partners providing learning, charity, and art is so counter-cultural that I am happy to put aside my irritation with the over-enthusiastic presenters and wish them "God speed".

An earlier interface between the everyday and the sacred was explored in Sacred Wonders of Britain (BBC2, Monday of last week). The presenter, Neil Oliver, started his narrative in 13,000 BC, at Creswell Crags, whose palaeolithic cave art is our island's earliest site-specific record of religious activity, the depictions of their prey surely offering some animistic engagement with the creatures themselves, conjuring their spirits out of the stone to ensure a favourable hunt.

Neolithic long barrows are now thought to be memorials to great halls previously erected on the site: places of ritual congregation and feasting that later become the dwelling places of the ancestors -rather like, as he said, church hall and church combined.

Oliver is seeking to discover what confers a spiritual presence that survives long after the long since faded. I am sceptical about all this - I think we are too goodat finding "spiritual presence" in the kind of places where we have been primed to expect it. But, overall, this series has made an admirable start.

For most people, it is only a short step from the spiritual to the spooky, and The Thirteenth Tale (BBC2, Monday of last week) was about as classy a tale of mystery, hauntings, and sudden death as we are likely to see for some time.

Vanessa Redgrave and Olivia Colman gave brilliant performances: two writers, one dying of cancer, feeling that the time has finally come to tell her own story; the other, engaged as reluctant amanuensis, uncertain how much she wanted to be drawn into someone else's world.

The themes of truth and fiction were explored with masterly atmosphere and depth - until the plot twist near the end, after which it fell to pieces. The final effect was one of clotted congestion rather then the disturbing, open-ended question with which all the best ghost stories should leave us.

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