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Double discourse

25 September 2015


IF, LAST Sunday evening, at the prospect of another series of Downton Abbey, you found yourself reaching for your revolver, then Drama on 3: Being Human (The Debate at Valladolid) (Radio 3) offered an alternative form of culture. Admittedly, it did not get into its stride for a good 40 minutes; but this collaboration between the playwrights Mike Walker and Andrew Whaley presented a more than simply worthy account of human rights, as expressed through two intercutting narratives.

The first — and, frankly, the more coherent — told the story of a debate held in 1550, on the orders of the King of Spain, to determine whether the native peoples of the New World should be treated as human beings. The chief antagonists were two Jesuit priests; on the side of the natives was Bartholomé de las Casas, who had witnessed the brutality of the colonial project; on the other, and arming himself with reams of Thomist scholarship, was Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda. Had this been a Sunday-night TV drama, our sympathies would have been set, and the 90 minutes a working out of the manifest destiny implicit in those ideological positions.

Except that Walker’s script did something much more interesting. Suffice to say that, unlike much historical drama, which is content to relegate views contrary to our own contemporary liberal assumptions as being formed purely of religious bigotry, here we encountered something like a sympathetic, if somewhat irrational defence of what we now take to be indefensible.

The second play was set in modern Cape Town. Both plays, which shared the same cast, were flawlessly acted, and produced with such ingenuity that the shifts of storyline never jolted. It may not have dislodged Downton in the ratings, but you might give it a go when you’d otherwise be goggling at re-runs on Dave.

All of last week, Woman’s Hour (Radio 4, weekdays) handed over its editorship to guests: distinguished women all, including, on Wednesday, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek. The — at the time of broadcast — Bishop of Gloucester-designate had been invited to suggest items for inclusion in the show; and the Bishop took the opportunity to highlight outreach projects in Eastwood Park women’s prison, and the work of the L’Arche communities.

But, for all that, the programme could not escape its lifestyle bias, and much of the time was spent in the Bishop’s new sitting-room, taking on the two sacred Fs of Woman’s Hour: food and fashion.

And so we heard a good deal about the design of Bishop Treweek’s mitre and cope; and quite a lot about a new chocolate-making enterprise called Lick the Spoon. Not much, though, about the other F — faith — although the Bishop did work hard to get in references that might alert us to what her ministry was.

Most entertaining was the brief appearance of the Bishop’s husband, Guy. “What is it like to be you?” came the impossible question from Jane Garvey. His elegant response — that his was a character not known in Trollope — was, I fear, the quote of the show.

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