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Evening classes

22 May 2015


I BLAME the Bishop. In a scenario unfamiliar to our episcopal bench, it seems as though the political future of Denmark is about to be sealed by the rhetoric of a theologian and father-in-God: 1864  (Saturdays) is BBC4's latest Continental weekend import.

Watching these series has, of course, a serious educational value, transforming those of us who care about it into better Europeans. I think of them as superior language courses. The various Nordic noirs have introduced us to Swedish and Norwegian; Spiral enhances our French; even Montalbano helps prepare us for our next trip to Palermo. My Danish will have improved no end by the time that 1864 completes its exposition of an episode crucial to the recent history of that nation: the Schleswig-Holstein question.

Bishop Monrad is a nationalist, convinced that Denmark has a divinely given right to rule the territory in question. The political manoeuvrings seem, with our knowledge of the First World War, like children sleepwalking. But all this is the context for the heart of the piece, which is a love story, owing more to popular romantic conventions than art novel.

The girls are gorgeous, the boys are handsome, the plot presents over-neat pairings, and the contemporary framework through which the historical events are perceived is the fairytale set-up of a (pierced and druggy, to make it modern) poor girl's winning the friendship of a curmudgeonly invalid - who happens to be a baron. But, as a retelling of the eternal theme of the pity of war, it is done brilliantly.

York Minster as you have never seen it filled our screens on Sunday night in BBC1's first episode of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I have not read Susanna Clarke's novel; so I cannot tell how faithful this version of her fantasy about two magicians' redirecting the course of 19th-century British history is. The first spell cast was a spectacular bringing to life of the Minster's statues.

Having written a research paper on the subject of the great choir screen, I was bowled over by how brilliantly the line of kings moved and conversed. It was done not just with technical wizardry, but genuine wit. The second spell was a resurrection - of a recently dead young woman - but this required a pact with a devil-figure, which will no doubt cast its shadow over the proceedings.

The whole thing is bunkum, but it is done with superb conviction and period feeling - except, as always, when it comes to the Church. Why does painstaking research stop short at religion? In 1805, clergy neither wore stoles nor started prayers with "The Lord be with you." But, even with such solecisms, it is good TV drama.

Rory Bremner's Election Report  (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) had a slightly strained air, reflecting that even satire is sometimes overwhelmed by the unexpected. The rout of Lib Dems and Labour, the failure of UKIP to make its breakthrough, the absolute Tory majority - all these provide so unforeseen a political map as to leave comedy behind.

The many key exits from the political stage gave Bremner a series of farewell performances for now redundant impressions.

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