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Filling in the gaps

20 November 2015

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“DON’T tell, show,” is not just the only worthwhile guiding principle for a life of Christian discipleship: it is the ruling mantra for all who are engaged in film, drama, literature — in media generally.

The strongest impression most of us will receive of the events in Paris last weekend will be from TV news broadcasts; yet, ironically, we were told that the actual images were too distressing to show. This raises a curious issue: do we need to see the actual thing itself? Or can human imagination create images just as strong from description and secondary effect?

Our pastoral guidance is surely to encourage people to encounter, as little mediated as possible, the actual truth. This is the incarnational imperative: to be involved with the very stuff of life, and of death. For all its immediacy, responsible TV respects tender sensibilities, and draws back out of focus. Does our imagination fill in the gaps?

Nothing could seem further than the sentiments I just expressed than Dominic Sandbrook: Let us entertain you (BBC2, Wednesday of last week); and, indeed, Dominic Sandbrook’s grand theme was the seemingly infinite British (all right, then, English) ability to retreat into nostalgic fantasy rather than deal with uncomfortable truth.

He started with that interesting phenomenon, the way in which successful pop stars sooner or later buy up a country house and become the lord of the manor. He showed that this is our immemorial trajectory, the reason that revolution never takes root here; how trade, commerce, piracy, and corruption have, throughout history, been acceptable routes into the heart of the Establishment.

Popular culture demonstrates an extraordinary desire to immerse itself in nostalgia: who would have thought that a book about Hogwarts boarding school would outsell every other children’s book? Is James Bond essentially an upper-class thug peddling exploded ideas of Britain’s world importance? And was the Sex Pistols’ “God Save the Queen” a revolutionary act or a back-handed compliment to the monarchy?

Peter Cook’s club The Establishment, the fount of modern satire, was itself patronised by the Establishment, and the satirists themselves, for all their protests, were, of course, immersed in privilege and status.

The royal family has shown itself to be a world leader in this process of assimilation: Madness’s Diamond Jubilee performance of “Our House” at Buckingham Palace did not demonstrate that pop has taken over the monarchy; on the contrary, it showed how much the monarchy had taken over the forces that might most be thought to destabilise our tradition.

The problem with all this benign evolution is that it mutes the challenge that our society, institutions, and culture desperately need, if we are to avoid sinking into ever greater social inequality.

Peep Show (Channel 4, Wednesdays) is back. Mark and Jez are still descending into new depths of glorious failure, inconsequential lives of infinite irritation to the characters themselves, revealed by the device of letting us hear all their (shameful) inmost thoughts. Telling, as well as showing.

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