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Personal quest

15 January 2016

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DO YOU focus on similarities, or differences? My Mediterranean with Adrian Chiles (BBC2, Sundays) was a two-part journey by the presenter to explore whether, had he been born in a different place, the Roman Catholicism he returned to in his forties might just as easily been Islam or Judaism. Do these three great faiths have more to share than to divide?

He spent time with adherents and leaders of all three religions and of none, in particular seeking out festivals and celebrations, finding in table-fellowship and good conversation far more that binds than separates.

The place where he felt most uncomfortable was with a group of fellow Christians, noisily encamped by the River Jordan to support Jews in celebrating sukkot. Unfortunately, he kept referring to them simply as “Evangelicals”, seemingly unaware that they represent a minute, extreme, proportion of those who proudly bear that label. He found, unsurprisingly, that he was at one with liberal, open people of all religions; intransigent zealots of all persuasions had the opposite effect.

My reaction to the programme veered between considering it too superficial a treatment of a vital subject, and thinking that Chiles found a way to get to the very heart of what religion is really all about.

War and Peace (BBC1, Sundays) is broadcast late enough to avoid any curtailment of the evening-prayer sermon, although it will cut through the post-evensong Young People’s Discussion over Coffee. Reducing the novel to six hour-long episodes is a shameful abbreviation, and Andrew Davies’s adaptation bears sad evidence of coarsening and sensationalising the masterpiece; but my overall reaction is of delight.

Even in so short a timeframe, much of the panoramic sweep and scale of the original is conveyed. The characters are alive in their complexity: noble, scheming, decadent, devout, impetuous, indecisive, infuriating — we share their moral confusion as war brings far more horror than the glory they expect. It looks terrific, and the omnipresence of Orthodox ritual and devotion is given its due place.

It is escapist, of course: this war took place more than 200 years ago, and life in gilded palaces is unimaginably distant from anything we experience; but Tolstoy’s depiction of love and betrayal, happiness and tragedy, when acted out with such conviction, helps us to know ourselves.

The historical background to the epic is being spelled out in Empire of the Tsars: Romanov Russia with Lucy Worsley (BBC4, Wednesdays). God plays a significant part in this drama, of course: Muscovy was more convinced than post-Renaissance European countries that a divine hand controlled its destiny and sanctioned the despotism of its society. Much of the first programme focused on Peter the Great and his work of ruthlessly shifting Russia out of a medieval mindset into the enlightened world, enforcing technologies, dress, and manners on a reluctant nation.

Dr Worsley’s documentaries always come with an arch knowingness that I find irritating, but here it is kept well in check, and the story is allowed to speak in all its exotic wonder.

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