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TV review of the year

22 December 2016


Compelling: the best drama of 2016 was the adaptation Tolstoy’s War and Peace on BBC 1

Compelling: the best drama of 2016 was the adaptation Tolstoy’s War and Peace on BBC 1

THIS year, there have been an unprecedented number of events — some national, many international — that have changed, or are surely going to change, the big picture. Television is central to all this, bringing the events right into our homes. It is a two-way process: viewers worldwide see the images, and do not just passively note them; they act, in acute cases, as calls-to-arms, fomenting further violence, strengthening resistance, or impelling us at least to generous giving.

Social media have taken over many of these functions, but they cannot compete with TV’s other way of making current events immediate by considered documentary coverage. We have seen not just news bul­letins, but debates between the leading personalities, and full programmes, about the EU referendum and the consequences of the result — in particular, Andrew Marr’s Scot­land and the Battle for Britain (BBC2, October); the presidential election in the United States; the continuing agony of Syria; and the refugee crisis (especially Exodus: Our journey to Europe, BBC2, August).

Today’s events, with humankind’s ability to make sound judgements and take proper action (or rather the constant absence of such virtues), have been placed in context by programmes that commemorated annivers­aries, especially the Battle of the Somme (100 years), and the Aberfan disaster (50 years).

Happier current affairs included the Queen’s 90th birthday, and the confounding of years of pessimism by the overwhelming success of the Rio Olympics and Paralympics. In theological terms, this mass of TV is an incarnating process: the immediate moving image puts flesh on other places, other people. It enables us to engage more directly — but also, paradoxically, makes such a powerful experience available to us as we lounge in our armchairs that it lulls us into a life of total non-engagement with the real world.

It might seem that the world of fiction could be only the palest of reflections, and yet we have seen some powerful drama series that provide a further moral compass to help us navigate through life.

Shakespeare’s anniversary showed us how brilliantly his work can be reimagined on the small screen, particularly A Midsummer Night’s Dream (BBC1, May), and Richard III (BBC2, May). Other great classics — Conrad’s The Secret Agent (BBC1, July) and Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (BBC1, October, shunted off unaccountably into an early-afternoon slot) — were marvellous.

There were contemporary crime thrillers, ever grittier and grimmer, notably The Missing (BBC1, October) and Happy Valley (BBC1, February), while glamour and glitz leavened the crime and violence in The Night Manager (BBC1, February). The best drama was a compelling account of Tolstoy’s War and Peace.

It was another great year for science, history-of-art, and culture documentaries (I pick out The Renaissance Unchained (BBC4, February), celebrating the fact that Northern Europe was ahead of Florence and Sienna in many crucial creative areas. Both these genres were the richest hunting-ground for serious theological learning and exposition.

Why have I not mentioned explicitly religious programmes? Because there was of these, alas, an even greater dearth than ever before.


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