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Zola and Hobnobs

04 December 2015


A CENTURY before EastEnders and the heavy drum-riff beating out another histrionic cliffhanger, there was Emile Zola. The Rougon-Macquart novels have more lust, violence, and dynastic rivalry than Dirty Den could wave a fist at; which is probably why Radio 4 has called its week-long serialisation Blood, Sex and Money.

The 20 novels were adeptly mashed into nine episodes by Dan Rebellato, and directed by Polly Thomas. Each one is a self-contained tale, but forms an epic account of mid-19th-century France on the brink of industrialisation. Over the whole presides 104-year-old Dide, played by Glenda Jackson with a weary bitterness.

Saturday’s episode dealt with the story of François and Martha, from Zola’s novel La Conquête de Plassans, in which a charismatic priest manages to seduce the wife in all but body, while the husband falls victim to a madness that runs in the Rougon-Macquart blood.

It made for cracking good radio, the hot smell of guilt and sin wafting over the airwaves and the whole thing ending in hellfire. It’s all there on iPlayer; so put the kettle on, get the Hobnobs out, and settle down for some proper lust in the dust.

There has been much to-ing and fro-ing in the argument over the Lord’s Prayer advertisement, but, until the Jeremy Vine show (Radio 2, Monday of last week), I’d not heard anybody suggest that the one-minute film might actually radicalise viewers. I doubt even Vine himself maintained a straight face at this vision of cinemas pouring forth regiments of fiery-eyed Christians, having watched this quiet, innocuous sequence.

What is more likely to radicalise is the sense of frustration at a decision by the agency Digital Cinema Media (DCM) which will leave most people incredulous. Not even Alastair Lichten, of the National Secular Society, could raise an argument beyond the disingenuous “rules is rules” defence. DCM is following its own policy, he declared; and that’s that.

It was strange, then, that, as the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell, explained, DCM was not only happy to negotiate the presentation of the film until its inexplicable change of mind, but was even discussing giving the PR company a discount.

Vine tried hard to get beyond the logistics of the decision-making process. Cinema adverts for Coca-Cola and popcorn are legitimate because they exist; adverts for God are not because we cannot prove that God exists. Bishop Cottrell’s response adopted the tone of a Sunday School teacher dealing with an irritating child: “Don’t be silly.”

The World Service is in the thick of an ambitious season of programmes, 100 Women, which recognises that powerful women can exist outside Europe and the United States.

Thus, on Friday, we heard the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, in conversation with Zeinab Badawi. On the agenda: the international standing of a court that has so far exclusively focused on African affairs. This left no time, thankfully, for the usual lifestyle questions: “So, how do you balance your busy job prosecuting corrupt dictators with the responsibilities of bringing up your family?”

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