AS ONE becomes older and grouchier, words or terms emerge that,
by their mere appearance, induce apoplectic irritation and raised
blood pressure. My list is headed by "spiritual", or
"spirituality", but in the context of TV documentaries, snapping
closely on their heels come "secrets" and "treasure". These are
tabloid terms, employed to set the pulse racing.
Usually, the promised revelation turns out to be something that
anyone with reasonable general knowledge has known for ages, or the
fruits of new research which has, indeed, made a
hitherto-unrecognised link - but labelling it as a "secret" poses
the question: who intended it to remain hidden from the public
gaze? "Treasure" usually turns out to be something interesting, but
of little value to a Caribbean pirate.
Eager to learn all there is to know about our diocese's mother
church, I couldn't miss Secrets of St Paul's Cathedral
(Channel 5, Friday). A world-class team of structural engineers
have been examining some of the world's greatest buildings with the
aid of a state-of-the-art mobile laser-scanner. This, we were
promised, would reveal new insights into how Wren created his
How does the stupendous dome stay up? The laser showed us how a
brick cone supports the weight of the ball and cross; the outer
dome is built as light and high as possible, and what we see from
inside is a much lower dome. In other words, what visitors who
climb beyond the Whispering Gallery can see with their own
Much was made of Wren's error in building on clay rather than on
sand; no one had thought to check that the subsoil of London is,
indeed, clay - there is no sand to build on.
The whole thing, generous and well-meaning as it was, appeared
context-free, employing huge technological resources to discover
things that every member of the fabric team already knew.
And Digging for Britain (BBC4, Tuesday of last week),
the round-up of recent archaeological discoveries, has, despite its
well-informed presenters, a distressingly high quotient of
"treasures", replacing the cultural significance of this or that
artefact with the (frequently untrue) implication that it must be
worth barrowloads of money.
There was a great "cathedral" on display here, too - or, at
least, the shadow of one. The significance of the Ness of Brodgar,
in Orkney, is becoming more and more apparent: its complex of
Neolithic monuments may have been more important than Stonehenge.
Its great temple was some 82 feet by 65 feet, facing the chambered
tomb of Maeshowe. Broken stone mace-heads point towards centuries
of ritual activity, greatly extending the story of religion on
these islands. Now that really is treasure.
UKIP: The first 100 days (Channel 4, Monday of last
week), a dramatisation of what might happen if the party won the
General Election outright, lacked profound political insight,
focusing more on the personal challenges facing the party's
supposed only black MP. In the end, she refused to toe UKIP's line,
and wrecked her chance of high office. It was heart-warming - but
its implausibility encouraged hideous nightmares of what might