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Woman of her time

20 February 2015

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SHAKESPEARE'S MOTHER: The secret life of a Tudor woman (BBC4, Thursday of last week) delivered meatier fare than its tabloid title suggested. It takes an act of will to overcome my aversion to its presenter, Michael Wood, whose delivery suggests that he is in love with the subject of his programmes, and wishes to raise our emotion to a similarly heightened level, but here he introduced us to something really valuable.

Mary Arden's life story is an exemplar of the successive upheavals of 16th-century England: she lived through the reigns of four monarchs, and saw four changes of religion, at a time when, of course, religion affected every aspect of everyone's life. Her progress was as much social, political, and cultural as religious: her father rose with the rise of a new middle class, and her husband became a leading player in the life of Stratford-upon-Avon.

The narrative made the compelling television it did because of the remarkable level of survival: her childhood home was discovered a few years ago; inventories and wills give us accurate evidence of her life; Stratford - far more than most English towns - still has buildings and institutions that are proud to continue their Tudor function; and the period reconstruction of her farm offered a more authentic illustration of her daily life than most documentary reconstructions can manage.

We are interested in Arden in the first place because of her grandson; but the more we heard about her, the less significant William became: her story was of absorbing concern in its own right. As a way of presenting the successive revolutions of the English Reformation, and the destruction of a millennium-long way of relating to the world, this film, I can imagine, would fascinate people who were not naturally disposed to English Midlands Reformation studies.

We saw Stratford's town council in session today in a manner that would have been largely familiar to Shakespeare's father; the machinations of another such council lie at the heart of The Casual Vacancy, BBC1's new drama series, based on the novel by J. K. Rowling. This sets up a series of contrasting opposites: the heart of the town is a Country Life idyll of honey-coloured stone, but the Field estate houses semi-feral scroungers; and the council is run by conservative NIMBYs opposed by ineffective do-gooders.

It has a stratospheric cast of acting royalty, and looks fabulous, but the presentation of contrasts is too formulaic, and the characters are too close to caricature. It feels perilously like pantomime rather than drama dealing with serious issues.

In Young War Widows (ITV, Tuesday of last week), three women told in their own words what it is like when your beloved husband is killed serving Queen and country in Afghanistan. Many aspects of the production - slow motion, soppy music - were emotionally manipulative; but, overall, this was a valuably honest portrait of bereavement and loss. It was a paean to the power of love.

They are all now finding ways to rebuild their lives and discover new hope and purpose.

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