*** DEBUG START ***
*** DEBUG END ***

Allons, enfants

16 May 2014

iStock

IN EASTERTIDE, Christians of all people should be conscious of the symbolic power of the Empty Space; so it was refreshing to hear Dr Richard Clay expatiate on this theme in the excellent first part of The French Revolution: Tearing up history (BBC4, Tues 6 May).

Dr Clay is standing up for the iconoclast, telling the story of this most cataclysmic moment in our modern history - and, along the way, reinforcing Zhou Enlai's conviction that it is too soon to tell whether it was, overall, a good thing or a bad thing - through the counter-intuitive process of cataloguing the destruction of art.

The revolutionaries, he argued, defaced statues and monuments not because they were vandals, but because they had good reasons to remove symbols that proclaimed the supremacy of Crown and Church. Unless repression based on the accident of birth or the promulgation of superstition were completely done away with, the people could not enjoy the liberty that was their true birthright.

Dr Clay does an excellent job of seeking out unfamiliar objects and evidence, such as the little scale models of the Bastille that were sent across France to commemorate the destruction of that hated sign of arbitrary despotism. But this example also points up the flaw in his argument: he failed to mention that the mob effected the liberation of only seven prisoners.

He raises fascinating points in his drawing of contemporary parallels: which is the more reprehensible defacement of a public space - graffito by "vandals", or the municipally sanctioned commercial advertisement? The weakness lies in his acceptance of the revolutionaries' ideals - that extraordinary French concept of cold logic sanctioning hot-blooded violence: all those blank spaces where crosses, crowns, and aristos' coats-of-arms have been removed are, indeed, potent - but perhaps (as with a number of contemporary revolutions) they really signify vacuums.

Lucy Worsley's series The First Georgians: The German kings who made Britain (BBC4, Thursdays) offers an interesting prequel to all this turmoil. Hanoverian England was based from the very start on a parliamentary limitation of the right of kings and Church. As the mercantile and professional "middling sort" took on greater and greater political and cultural significance, British liberty became the model for radicals everywhere; but the development of our national characteristic of smug self-satisfaction failed to mask the ghastly plight of the poor, as powerless and starving as any on the Continent.

Alan Bennett at 80: Bennett meets Hytner(BBC4, Saturday) was a beautiful celebration of one contemporary British icon - an hour-long interview, illustrated with clips from his plays and films, adding up to a kind of vision of England, if you like.

Sir Nicholas Hytner drew out Bennett's characteristic comedy of loss: the failure to grasp the opportunity to live a fuller, more dangerous life; his fascination with royalty, spies, schools, and the elderly; and his ability to make an audience empathise with people they would avoid like the plague in real life. Bennett displays ambivalence about the Establishment: his mockery is always affectionate, his radical satire undercut by nostalgia.

Church Times Bookshop

Save money on books reviewed or featured in the Church Times. To get your reader discount:

> Click on the “Church Times Bookshop” link at the end of the review.

> Call 0845 017 6965 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm).

The reader discount is valid for two months after the review publication date. E&OE

The Church Times Archive

Read reports from issues stretching back to 1863, search for your parish or see if any of the clergy you know get a mention.

FREE for Church Times subscribers.

Explore the archive

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)