HOW loyal and deferential of BBC1 to respond to the message at
the heart of the Queen's Christmas broadcast - that we should all
make time to turn aside from the pressures of everyday life, and
take stock - by broadcasting immediately after the main news
bulletin that evening a short programme heralded by the announcer
as "Five minutes to take stock" (although it appeared in the
schedules as On Christmas Night).
The concept was simple: Patrice Naiambana read the birth
narrative from St Matthew's Gospel, followed by King's College
choir singing the Sussex Carol. The heritage lobby was satisfied by
the traditional church interior, but - miracle of miracles - a
modern translation was chosen. Its simplicity was matched by its
effectiveness: the words of scripture, illuminated by music, told
the story with deceptive fullness.
So basic a format carries a sting in its tail for the
programmers: something so terrific could easily be broadcast on
every significant Christian festival - even every Sunday of the
year. Why isn't it?
The royal broadcast once again was the most direct appeal to
Christian faith that we see on our screens throughout the entire
year. Her Majesty does seem to have a remarkable ability to
encourage us to live out the specifics of our own religion, while
presenting an overall picture of shared virtues to which it is
difficult to imagine anyone of goodwill objecting. Service, duty,
her coronation oath, the baptism of Prince George: religion seeped
out of every pore, and was presented as the undergirding
Has King's College, Cambridge, taken out some kind of copyright
on Christmas? It turned up again in M. R. James:
Ghostwriter (BBC2, Christmas Day), a tribute by Mark Gatiss
that followed immediately on from his own production of one of the
master's spooky tales, The Tractate Middoth.
James, as Fellow and then Provost of King's, produced the
stories to send the undergraduates terrified out into the Christmas
night. Gatiss did not shy away from pointing out that James was, of
course, a respected Anglican clergyman, and relished the
incongruity between his own faith and the rebarbative terror that
his tales inspire.
This priest understood fear and nameless horror, and clearly
enjoyed the frisson of communicating them to others. While Mr
Gatiss made it clear that the ghost stories were a minor pendant to
a life's work of significant scholarship, no real attention was
paid to, for example, his pioneering work on New Testament
Apocrypha. It was overall a rather thin account.
Christmastide's escapist diversion has been Death Comes to
Pemberley (Boxing Day, Friday, Saturday), BBC1's adaptation of
P. D. James's borrowing of the cast of Jane Austen's Pride and
Prejudice, and weaving them into a murder mystery, ten years
on from the conclusion of the novel.
Not having read Baroness James's work, I cannot comment on the
faithfulness of the TV adaptation, but overall this was a poor
thing, relying on the extravagance of period detail and costume
when the dialogue, sentiments, and what passed for motive and
relationship all belonged in our own contemporary world.