HEARTWARMING, uplifting, religious - but essentially a safe bet.
BBC2 offers us another fly-on-the-wall documentary series about the
life of one of our great cathedrals: Canterbury
It is a reflection of that great counter-truth of current C of E
life: while general parish churchgoing continues to decline, the
numbers sharing in the worship in our great churches are
Of course, it is a relatively undemanding expression of faith:
in a huge space, no one will notice you, and on your first visit
you are unlikely to be grabbed to stand for the PCC. You avoid the
anxiety of having to worship next to the same ghastly people for
the next 20 years. It is a spiritual experience, reinforced with
great music, architecture, art, and the comforts of heritage: all
the dreadful things now bear the safe patina of history.
And, as a significant vehicle of religious TV, these are exactly
the criticisms that I level at such programmes: where is the
challenge? Where is the radical step of discipleship that lies at
the heart of true faith?
Having said all that, our cathedrals and minsters make strenuous
efforts to confront those who come to visit with the reality of
Christianity, and how it is lived today. They seek to have their
doors open to minister to the wide world, in its joys and agonies,
while offering the best-tuned worship of God that can be achieved,
and I think that this new series tries hard to do the same.
Not Set in Stone was the witty title of last week's
first episode, linking the launch of the first girls' choir in the
cathedral's 1400 years to the reconstruction of the great south
window. The men and boys, meanwhile, were singing evensong deep in
the Arctic, in a Norwegian church believed to hold the northernmost
relic of St Thomas Becket.
I know that the clergy from previous great churches depicted on
TV have been disappointed that the editing process has diminished
the centrality of mission in their work: let us hope that this
reverses that trend.
If you want all certainty removed from your life, I can
recommend Jim Al-Khalili's The Secrets of Quantum Physics
(BBC4, Tuesdays), whose tag could be Einstein's comment that
"everything that we regard as real is made out of things that
cannot be regarded as real." At sub-atomic level, stuff behaves in
such a way that it defies every understanding on which we build our
lives. It seems that photons, the heart of light, only become real
when we observe them; the assumption that things exist whether we
are watching them or not does not seem to be supported by
A more accessible bending of the norms of accepted reality was
celebrated in Spike Milligan: Love, light and peace (BBC4,
Wednesday of last week). The surreal aspects of Milligan's comedy
were set in the context of his life story, from blissful childhood
in colonial India to the deprivations of pre-war London, the misery
of war, and the exhilaration of creating the weekly episodes of
The Goon Show. We saw home-movie footage, and heard from
his children and colleagues.
The demons were all around: his see-sawing depression and
hospitalisation, the impossibility of working with him. It forced
the disturbing questions: what toll must genius take? Is personal
hell the only possible source of other people's laughter?