IF PASSIONTIDE is all about being at the mercy of others, then
last Thursday was a good time for Panorama to screen
Don't Cap My Benefits (BBC1). A film crew followed the
fortunes of families in Brent, as the Government's new benefits
policy begins to bite.
Basing the calculations on national averages means that London
is simply unaffordable for the vulnerable. As a harsh inducement to
make the feckless and workshy get a job, it fails if there are no
jobs available - or at least none thatthe applicants might
reasonably manage - and fails even more when they turn out not to
be workshy, but struggling with circumstances beyond their control
which make the prospect of regular work impossible.
The camera crew shadowed a few families, so that we got to know
them, and to share their hopes and then the dawning realisation
that they were going to be evicted and decanted to the nearest
place that Brent Council could afford to house them - in many
This sombre viewing did not over-sentimentalise the plight of
its subjects: the camera held, as it were, a steady gaze, allowing
us to decide whether they held unreasonable expectations, and were
refusing to face reality. Amid the pain and heartbreak, human
dignity was nurtured by Brent Council's staff, seeking scrupulously
to apply a policy that was not of their making as generously as
Television can be relied on to help turn us away from bitter
truth by offering a soothing dose of escapist nostalgia (until,
that is, the bailiffs come to take away the TV). Two excellent such
series began last week. Suzy Klein's Rule Britannia! Music,
mischief and morals in the 18th century (BBC4, Monday) showed
how after the Glorious Revolution music-making was central to the
project of developinga recognisably modern national identity.
The aristocratic craze for Italian opera was subverted by the
popular balladeering of The Beggar's Opera, cultural
xenophobia worthy of Nigel Farage, pandering to patriotic myopia
that was prepared to find in Handel's sublime operas covert Roman
Catholic propaganda, Jacobite insurrection, and sodomy.
Ian Hislop's Olden Days: The power of the past in
Britain (BBC2, Wednesdays) employed some of the same material,
but was, for all its merriment, a more searchingexploration of the
power ofbogus history, and of the persistence of myth as a basis
In this first of three programmes he traced the development of
the significance of two of Britain's founding personages, one real
and one rather less so: Alfred the Great, and King Arthur.
Hislop's account was fresh and illuminating. Even the historical
Alfred has been subverted at times into a wholly mythic figure, for
example by the Reformers, who saw him (despite his wholehearted
allegiance to Rome) as a kind of proto-Protestant, forging a nation
independent of the continent. At times, the fabled romance of
Arthur's doomed Camelot has inspired people to endure hardships and
History is here a slippery concept, its interpretation far more
significant than boring old facts.