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Buried treasure

09 January 2015


IT IS curious, when you think about it, that the Sovereign is awarded the Christmas Day TV message to the nation, while the Primate gets the New Year address. Logically, for cultic and social reasons, it would make more sense the other way round.

This year, you may not even have realised that the Archbishop of Canterbury was accorded the priv­ilege of such a message: in my TV guide, the first broadcast of his New Year Message (BBC1) was resolutely omitted, and some dig­ging around on iPlayer was needed to locate it. It appears to have been buried within Jools' Annual Hootenanny - not, perhaps, the most obvious place to look for it - at 12.45 a.m. It was repeated later, however, at 4.25 p.m.

The crossover between the Queen and Archbishop Welby ex­­tended this year into their material. As I reported last week, Her Majesty gave us the most direct and powerful testimony to the Christian faith that can be imagined, while His Grace spent far too much of his allotted four minutes 30 seconds paying tribute to the Armed Forces (of course, they deserve all praise - I am just querying the balance and priority when so little time and space can be found for our Archbishop directly to address the nation).

In Mapp and Lucia (BBC1, 29, 30, 31 January), E. F. Benson pro­duced his series of comic dissec­tions of cultured middle-class life in the 1920s and '30s, and Steve Pemberton's adaptation captured exactly their depiction of snobbery, pretension, and rivalry.

It is painting on a tiny scale: there are no children to complicate matters, and none of the real disasters and tragedies that gener­ate the plots of most novels - not even that most basic of fictive motors, love. And yet Miranda Richardson and Anna Chancellor showed how lives devoid of such dramas can, in their way, com­prehend the deepest machina­tions of international pol­itics, the sub­terfuge of espionage, and the heights of triumph and depths of defeat.

One noteworthy aspect of the books is their portrayal of homo­sexuality: we are meant to recog­nise that two of the leading characters have this orientation, and, daringly for the period, it is recognised and tacitly accepted by everyone else. I thought that this was handled well by the produc­tion, and was simply and delicately presented as an unremarkable fact.

All the characters are more or less fakes; all pretend to sophisti­cation that they woefully lack; all jostle for pre-eminence in a very small pond indeed. Yet we were drawn into the comedy of man­ners, and appreciated Ben­son's - and Pemberton's - achieve­­­­ment: within the general absurdity and moral malaise, there are moments of reconciliation, acceptance, and forgiveness. What, in fact, we call grace.

Perhaps the seasonal scheduling for another comedy of manners enabled the engagement of an even more stratospheric cast - Dustin Hoffman and Judi Dench - in Roald Dahl's Esio Trot (BBC1, New Year's Day). The hyper-reality of the screen image served, un­­for­tunately, to underline the essential thinness of the story, but the electricity generated by the char­acters eventually tran­scended all sense of improbability.

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