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What lies beneath

25 July 2014


WILL passing through the eye of the needle endanger the House of St Barnabas? Unexpected biblical allusion energised BBC2's The Fifteen Billion Pound Railway (Wednesday of last week). Londoners have got used to the series of massive holes that punctuate the heart of our city, disrupting roads and transport as the huge Crossrail line is built beneath our feet: this new documentary series shows us what lies behind the hoardings.

I don't need much persuasion to be fired up by ambitious engineering schemes, but the scale of this one is truly inspiring. There is a series of contrasts that provides perspective: the enormous size of the shafts; machinery that has to be slotted into the most constricted space; the army of engineers, shown to be a real fellowship; our capital revealed as an interlocking skein where the texture of life and work is inextricably interconnected.

The House of St Barnabas is the remarkable Georgian survival on the corner of Soho Square, its clerical warden called to regular meetings to discuss the import of every crack that opens up in its unique rococo plasterwork; the eye of the needle the term given by the engineers to the moment when the huge tunnelling machine must drive the new tube through the already congested ground beneath Tottenham Court Road Station.

It is only a foot above the existing Northern Line platform, and two feet below two escalators. There is, perhaps, 5cms of permissible error, and the station must remain open to passengers throughout - and the machine weighs 1000 tons. I was moved by its overriding criterion: that the thousands passing within only a few feet must have no idea it is happening. It is a curious place to encounter the spiritual charism of hiddenness.

Faith Schools Undercover: No clapping in class (Channel 4, Monday of last week) exposed the alleged extremism propagated on our children: Islamic schools where applause is considered to be a mark of Satan, and where boys are told that women must submit to men. Or illegal ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, where nothing is taught apart from the Torah and that everything about the modern world is evil. Or fundamentalist Christian schools, where evolution is held to be a malign fabrication.

Whatever evidence was produced by disgruntled former teachers, pupils, or undercover reporters, the governing bodies invariably insisted that they followed the path of toleration and openness. Considering the gravity of its accusations, this was overall a thin programme, missing the face-to-face encounters that would enable us to draw our own conclusions.

Rich Hall's California Stars (BBC4, Sunday) was another splendid 90 minutes of debunking, puncturing the bubble of another aspect of Hall's native United States. The Golden State did not wait for Hollywood to offer dreams: the 100,000 prospectors of the 1858 gold rush found how chimerical was its promised fame and fortune.

Hall's sardonic, gruff indignation skewered the hippy freedoms of the '60s and today's Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, finding them all sadly wanting - fantasies for the masses that enable a few to become hugely rich.

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