The way you say it

29 July 2016

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WHAT is it that really communicates? Surely it is the matter, the material, and the arguments adduced. This is why you spend a day and a half preparing each sermon, researching commentaries and theological expositions, presenting an unassailable case. This seems to me essentially misguided — and, even worse, an attitude largely Protestant.

What engages our audience lies less in the words said than in the way we say them. More than that, in the whole package, the liturgy as a whole, its pace, drama, openness: an attitude, in the sense of being universal, far more catholic. How we do it may be (heresy alert!) more important than what we do, and I suspect wells up from somewhere far deeper within us.

Similarly, the style and manner of a TV programme has at least as much effect as its content: the director who is happy to play with his medium can often have more to offer than the one with better material who plays it safe.

Last Saturday, BBC2 offered us two superb examples of creative TV: shows that let the subject matter dictate a style and format that pushed the envelope. Both were biographies about men who followed the well-trodden English path from subversive rebel to respected Establishment figure. In both cases, to come clean, I don’t particularly like their work; so each succeeded in that truly Evangelical aim: conversion.

The Marvellous World of Roald Dahl was wonderfully stylised, organised in 12 chapters, and owed much of its brilliance to his long-time collaborator, the illustrator Quentin Blake. Blake’s cartoons inserted themselves into archive film footage and still photographs, bringing to quirky life Dahl’s remarkable story. The strongest impression was of the succession of serious accidents and tragedies that had marked his life, and his resilience in refusing to let them overwhelm him.

Keith Richards: The origin of the species was even more extraordinary. The Rolling Stones’s guitarist, his face apparently marked by the pursuit of every indulgence on offer (presumably up in his attic there is an unlined angelic portrait, as he looked when he sang as a choirboy before the Queen), told his story with unbroken good humour and amusement.

Wartime Deptford was recreated, 1940s schooldays brought back to life, ’50s art school recalled. Through it all, Richards’s face held centre stage, always wreathed, now in smoke from the Blitz, now in cigarette smoke, now in the fug and haze of early beat clubs. In the background, a brilliant score reorchestrated the Stones’s greatest hits, quietly fading in and out just on the edge of recognition.

The Secret Agent, BBC1’s current Sunday-night costume drama, is a terrific realisation of Conrad’s novel. It pushes hard at the parallels between anarchists of the 1890s and the terrorist threats we face today: the bitter Professor never parted from his suicide-bomber’s waistcoat, primed to detonate whenever he chooses; an exotic period detail when we studied the book in the 1960s is, alas, now a very real threat.

Toby Jones is magnificent, a grim portrayal of a weak and foolish man drawn by small steps into uncharted depths of evil.

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