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Royal message

03 January 2014


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 principle.

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.

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