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Lacking in spirit

02 October 2015

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A WARM welcome to a newcomer to that distinctly undercrowded Hall of Fame of TV vicars who are not (a) incompetent clowns; (b) in the grip of psychotic delusion; or (c) innate atheists, remaining in post only to undermine the entirely hateful structure of the institutional Church.

Merrily Watkins seems a real enough person — faithful and committed, trying her best to bring up her daughter after the recent death of her husband. But, in addition to the new parish, she has an extra string to her bow: she is also a diocesan exorcist, and today’s deliverance ministry is the point of ITV’s new three-part drama Midwinter of the Spirit (Wednesdays).

This seeks to overturn outworn stereotypes: she is a woman, and her bishop is young, good-looking, and black. It is beautifully acted and directed, and compels our attention with nicely managed moments of blood-freezing shock. But, at its heart, there is a nexus of problems.

It seeks to be both entirely realistic, and, at the same time, essentially supernatural. Worse than that, it takes for granted that “religion” and “supernatural” are different aspects of the same thing.

The realism is undermined, however, by ludicrous impossibilities: diocesan offices would not give the police contact details of a priest who has only just started her exorcist’s training; police would not drive a priest for miles into the country to confront her with an appalling grisly crime without preparing her first; if you were a bishop trying to calm down your alcoholic previous exorcist, who has locked himself in a cathedral side chapel, the first thing you would do is switch on all the lights rather than allow the crepuscular gloom to ratchet up the tension.

On the written page, we willingly suspend disbelief; but, on glossy naturalistic TV, such things stick out like sore thumbs. And Ms Watkins needs to grasp a few more theological insights. “This man couldn’t have been a Christian!” she gasps, when confronted by the crucified corpse of a history teacher who has turned his basement into a black-mass centre — as though that had anything to do with it.

Surely such blasphemy has force only because deluded souls take our faith as something real that they are driven to subvert. Of course, what they take so seriously are our religion’s outward expressions and rituals; they are not engaging with what they seek to express — the good news of the Kingdom.

A good way to blow away the miasma that clings to English ghosties is to enter the world of Patagonia: Earth’s secret paradise (BBC2, Fridays). This is another stupendous natural-history documentary series — many of the images are so vast that they seem to spill beyond the confines of the TV screen.

Last week’s opening episode showed us a world in flux as volcanic activity continues to throw up new peaks in the Andes, and glacial meltwater continues to sculpt and mould the mountains. For me, the most moving sequence depicted a gaucho taming, in only three hours of concentrated attention and gentleness, an entirely wild horse.

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