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Rattling skeletons

26 February 2016


HOW exactly ought a saint to live? The Secret Letters of Pope John Paul II (BBC1, Monday of last week) was clear that it had found a scandal that ought at least to have delayed the fast-tracking that raised him to the altars in super-quick time.

The Pope’s close friendship with the Polish-American philosopher Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka is well known: their exchange of ideas and collaboration on a book are matters of public record. But she saved a cache of his letters, and, eventually, after his death, put them up for sale. They were snapped up by the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.

The presenter, Ed Stourton, pointed out that nothing in them indicated that the Pope had broken his vow of chastity, but the obvious closeness between them makes it clear that this was, emotionally, a far from platonic friendship.

The programme seemed to me a measured account, emphasising the sadness of the situation — particularly after the Pope’s death, when she was written out of the record. Stourton made good moral points: however non-adulterous the relationship was, Wojtyla was culpable in encouraging or allowing a closeness that could not be consummated.

Further, if the Polish Church and government believe that the correspondence reveals nothing anyone might hide, why do they keep it hidden away? Perhaps the most significant aspect of the business is the unsatisfactory situation of treating somebody as perfect, and seeking to suppress anything even vaguely critical: it always suggests hidden skeletons.

In similar vein, the assumption is that the subject of Kipling’s Indian Adventure (BBC2, Saturday) was an unassailable paragon of imperial virtue: Patrick Hennessey’s documentary proved that the reality was quite other. At the age of 16, he returned to India after school in England, and, rather than fit in perfectly with the Raj, he was, in fact, an outsider.

Short and unathletic, he found the British in India snobbish and suffocatingly dull. He associated with “other ranks”; and, worst of all, was intoxicated by the real India, the bustling squalid native town that was kept firmly out of sight. Here he enjoyed drugs and sex, and was fascinated by the colour, drama, and vitality he found.

His journalism developed into short stories, more and more critical of British vanity and hypocrisy, darker and more subversive. After seven years, he returned to England, filled with a lifetime’s inspiration. British India considered that it was well shot of him.

One Child (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) is a powerful new three-part drama series set in China. An adopted Chinese woman, Mei Ashley, who is living a successful life in England, receives a message from her birth mother, whom she has never heard of: she desperately wants her daughter to return, to try to help Mei’s brother — whom she did not know existed — clear himself of a trumped-up murder charge for which he is to be executed.

The contrast between Western and Chinese values and so-called justice provides the background; what grips is Mei’s gradual development from an outsider, who feels entirely foreign, to the realisation that this is her family, her culture — and she will fight for justice.

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