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Out of public view

23 May 2014


TU ES PETRUS: certainly in stone, but crowning apogee rather than sure foundation, St Peter once again blesses his city from above the great east window, now approaching its complete renovation.

The carving of this huge new statue, replacing a worn original, was, for me, the most moving element of The Minster (BBC2, Friday of last week), the series that follows a year in the life of York's cathedral. This is a behind-the-scenes narrative, focusing on the small army of vergers, cleaners, craftsmen, and musicians that is necessary to underpin the exceptional standard of liturgy, conservation, and maintenance that visitors now take for granted.

We get to know them as real people, to appreciate that they are at once ordinary and extraordinary: bearing the weight of caring for this glorious church, and conscious of their place within unbroken centuries of tradition, which they inherit and, in turn, must pass on.

It is not the most acute analysis of cathedral ministry; it offers more an affectionate and cheerful account. There is no challenge to the Minster's own view of itself.

No one could love the place more than I do, and yet a little astringency would have made a more compelling programme. Among all the delights of image and scene there are some unfortunate lapses: while celebrating the work of the new girls' choir, it won't do to say that they are preparing to present evensong - they are singing it (it is worship, not a concert); and it really is not good enough to say, when introducing them, that "There's also a boys' choir," when boys have led Minster worship since the days of Alcuin; worst of all, in a programme dedicated to a place built on a daily round of splendid music, is the muzak that undercuts the whole effect.

How fast can you wreck your God-given talent? We saw a thorough attempt in Dylan Thomas: A poet in New York (BBC2, Sunday), a dramatisation of his sordid final weeks. It was a remarkable tour-de-force of acting - not just by Tom Hollander in the title role, but especially Phoebe Fox as Caitlin .

The narrative is familiar: Thomas, determined to drink himself to death, behaves cruelly to those who love him and seek to save him; he betrays his wife, lover, and friends, wilfully exacerbates his deteriorating health, and relies on his egocentric boyish charm to effect reconciliation after reconciliation.

It is a standard romantic view of what happens when too much talent is curdled by too little self-discipline; but I am sure that I have heard another view altogether: that the boozing and womanising was all a bit of an act to fool the gullible English, and that he was, in fact, a consummate professional who never missed a deadline; and his death was a preventable travesty of medical care.

I enjoyed the film, but the writer Andrew Davies's treatment chosea path just a little too obvious,and its glorious technicolor flashbacks to his childhood, with dark undertones of how much bullying he endured, employed rather too many stock-in-trades of the genre. It was moving, but offered no revelation.

Perhaps we are jaded; but because of the excellent standard of British TV biopics, we now expect something new and striking.

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