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River of fire

16 September 2016


SPEAKING as a member of its Greater Chapter, it was with some distress that I saw St Paul’s Cathedral go up in flames last week.

The conflagration was not quite as tragic as it sounds, because the fire consumed not the real thing, but rather a wooden facsimile of Old St Paul’s. London 1666 (BBC4, Monday of last week) presented, live, a celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London, whose centrepiece was a huge model of medieval London, constructed to be burned on a couple of barges so that today’s citizens crowding the Embankment could have some idea of what the real thing must have been like.

We saw how it had been designed and constructed, and how unskilled young Londoners had been recruited and trained in carpentry and construction. We heard how the ancient city had gone up like a tinderbox after dry summers, how the devastating fire had cleansed and transformed it, and how the rebuilding kick-started the mercantile and economic energy that led to national trading pre-eminence and empire.

Unfortunately, they tried to jam all of this into 30 minutes, the timespan of last week’s fire; so we saw it burning over the interviewees’ shoulders as they tried to tell the story in the few minutes allotted them. It was also difficult to gain any idea of scale: with, obviously, no one in close proximity, it was impossible to get any real sense of how enormous the artwork really was.

A virtual model of London a few centuries later is one of the worst things about Victoria, ITV’s current period Sunday-night drama. CGI representations of the city and Buckingham Palace are so bad as to look as though they were rejected for the film of Mary Poppins.

I realise that this series started weeks ago, when I was abroad, but I felt duty bound to watch on replay at least the opening episode: first, because for us at St Mary Abbots, Kensington, the history of her childhood and accession are part of our parish story; and, second, because the readers of this paper will have a proper technical interest in the accuracy of the Coronation liturgy.

The whole thing is better than I expected. It’s souped up, sexualised, and sentimentalised; there is a predictable sub-plot to wade through; and the coronation is perfunctory, but the story of the young Queen’s shaking off of her mother’s stifling control and finding a will of her own, and growing up to become the world’s most powerful monarch, has a mythic resonance.

My Congo: Natural world (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) was more of a personal pilgrimage than a wildlife documentary: it was a passionate testimony by the cameraman Vianet Djenguet to a beloved homeland.

Do not confuse my country, he pleaded, with its lawless neighbour the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On his reckoning, Congo is a place with glorious range of species, all protected and flourishing. His journey ends in equatorial rainforest, where he eventually he meets a remote tribe. Somehow, they know he is coming, and they are honoured to welcome him, cherishing the memory of his great-grandfather, who lost his life trying to protect them. David Attenborough, I don’t think, ever quite managed this.

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