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Lacking in context

28 March 2014


THE Reformation never took place - or so you might reasonably conclude from the first episode of A Very British Renaissance (BBC2, Friday). James Fox is eager to tell us that, from the early 16th century, there was, in these islands, a remarkable flowering of every aspect of culture - painting, architecture, literature, science - which, he considers, is popularly underrated, but this is because he denigrates all that took place previously.

This is an extraordinary position - almost that of 18th-century Whiggery, where "Gothic" meant "barbaric". It flies in the face, I understand, of recent historical study, which is discovering mounting evidence of the vigour of late-medieval creativity, and its potential for further development.

Worse than that, he seems unwilling to give an adequate historical context for the cultural movements of the period, to which, of course, the climactic upheavals of the Protestant Reformation were central. For example, he bewails the lack of painting in medieval England, without mentioning that nearly all Gothic art had been in the service of the Church, and that untold pictures and wall-paintings were destroyed by the reformers.

He reminds us, quite properly, of the way that Foxe's Book of Mar-tyrs moulded the religious attitude of the English for a couple of centuries; what he does not mention is that the persecution of Protestants under Bloody Mary, which it sternly records, had been preceded by the barbarism of Henry VIII's and Edward VI's murder of those who refused to deny the Pope; and that there had been widespread popular support for the old religion, which surely enabled ordinary people to participate in art than was allowed by the Puritans.

The glories of Renaissance art seem to me to flower essentially among an élite: the Reformation took away from the general populace the opportunity to contribute towards new wall-paintings in their parish church. Dr Fox celebrates the splendour of Tallis's Spem in alium, but dismisses (perhaps he does not know about it) the glories of the Eton Choirbook. It is perfectly possible to think that both are wonderful.

More cutting-edge research can be savoured in the latest series by the palaeontologist Richard Fortey, Fossil Wonderlands: Nature's hidden treasures (BBC4, Tuesdays). He is focusing on sites where especially significant finds have been made - specimens that help us to understand key developments in the study of evolution.

Professor Fortey is the most genial of guides, ending each programme with the delicious conceit of sitting down and tucking into a meal made from the nearest living relatives of some of the fossils he has been showing us.

W1A (BBC2, Wednesdays) isa new spoof-documentary series from the team that brought us Twenty Twelve; but this time the target is the BBC itself. Ian Fletcher is the new Head of Values, whose task is to discern exactly what the BBC is for. Once again, a merciless laser dissects the inanities of corporation-speak, of institutional nonsense, of modish incompetence, and of the paramount significance of branding. It is excruciating and funny - but not as sharp as the original.

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