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Villainy at the inn

02 May 2014


NEVER begin with an apology: it is the first rule of all effective communication. I am sorry to say that in my rant last week about the BBC's failure properly to mark Holy Week with appropriate broadcasts, I overlooked The Great North Passion (BBC1, Good Friday), which seems to have been a very imaginative attempt to engage diverse communities and artists throughout Tyneside with Jesus's suffering and death. I say "seems" because, by the time I had access to a TV, its iPlayer window had expired; so I cannot comment retrospectively.

If you want to personify pure evil, you cannot do better than bring on the priest. This is one of the lessons taught by Jamaica Inn (BBC1, Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday of last week). I cannot judge how accurate this version was to Daphne du Maurier's novel, but, until the final half hour or so, it made highly effective TV.

This melodrama teetered on the edge of parody as orphan Mary came to terms with the full horror of life in the eponymous hostelry, uniquely forbidding and filthy. But the acting, direction, and camerawork soon drew us into ever worse revelations of depravity.

Smuggling was bad enough; but this was trumped by the ghastly trade of wrecking, with a grim scene of the survivors of a ship lured to its destruction being drowned by those who cared only for plunder. Finally, we realised that all this was orchestrated by the truly diabolical figure of the local incumbent, secretly attempting to recover the delights of the pagan world with human sacrifice on the local tor. But the pervading moral degeneration, shot through with passion, and even tenderness, was entirely convincing.

Another kind of fall was brilliantly portrayed in Tommy Cooper: Not like that, like this (ITV, Monday of last week). David Threlfall was entirely believable as the great comedian, funny in his very being: he simply had to shamble on stage for people to start laughing. The scenario was familiar enough: a clown plagued by personal demons and a chaotic personal life; greatly loved but almost unlovable in his meanness and selfishness, fuelled by alcohol; entirely ungenerous to his colleagues; and unfaithful to his wife.

But the performances and recreation of 1970s showbiz life were entirely convincing, making us see clearly the ethical dilemma: does the ability to bring delight to others justify personal moral failure? To what extent must the shortcomings of a great artist be accepted and covered up by those closest to him, so that his God-given talent can continue to flourish? (I suppose that is exactly the same problem that a number of priest's families deal with on a daily basis.)

A final descent into hell wound up BBC4's live relay from Covent Garden of Mozart's Don Giovanni from the Royal Opera House (Sunday). These TV broadcasts show something we do not get in the opera house: the close-ups give a much clearer impression of the sheer commitment of the singers, the total physical involvement required to inhabit a great role, and the courage needed to find in yourself, and be willing to express to an audience, the emotions (whether noble or despicable) that the part requires.

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