Life in the Army

08 April 2016

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THE age-old argument between faith and works is being played out in BBC1’s Sunday-evening series Paul O’Grady: The Sally Army and me. O’Grady is expressing a life­time’s admiration for the Army by sharing in its life, tasting its officers’ training, and, above all, taking part in its social action, such as feeding the homeless, and work­ing in a home for youngsters.

He has a ready ability to be sym­path­etic; so he is naturally good at this, building the relationships that bolster the con­fidence of the needy, well on the way to achieving his promised goal of playing the big drum as the band marches down Oxford Street. But for the real members of the Army, their love for, and service of, neighbour, is inseparably linked to their faith in God — and here O’Grady stands on the margin, claiming only an ag­­nostic position. This must make key aspects of the training more awkward than we have yet seen; and I wonder whether living out the action will alter his stance?

The A Word (BBC1, Tuesdays) is not an exploration of that Lenten famine we all feel, forced on us by the seven-weeks’ prohibition on singing or even uttering the ejaculation “Alleluia!” It is, rather, a drama about a family’s coming to terms — or, more accurately, failing to come to terms — with their son’s condition, somewhere on the autistic spectrum.

This is brilliantly acted and mov­­­­ingly realised, the emotion intensified by the glorious setting of the Lake District. But I am less impressed than most com­ment­ators. While the central dilemma, the pain of admitting that a beloved only son is not as “perfect” as everyone longs for, the anxiety about how his life will develop, the distress of trying to ensure the best possible educational environment for him, is realistic, there are many circumstances that are unreal.

In particular, the apparent lack of concern by the local school, the way the parents casually first take him out of schooling, then send him back (alone — at five years!) simply does not ring true. This is a pudding wildly over-egged, swamp­­ing the main issue in a stew of unfaithfulness, thwarted amb­ition, antagonism, and filial rivalry.

The Durrells (Sunday) is ITV’s latest costume drama, set in 1930s Corfu, where the widowed Louisa Durrell sets up home with her four children. It is a realisation of Gerald Durrell’s fictionalised account, My Family and Other Animals, and exhibits all the charm, colour, and high spirits of the original book. ITV manages to hit two essential Sunday-evening targets: it is not only feel-good period drama, but also taps into the BBC natural-history franchise, as the young Gerry fills the house with every creature he can lay his hands on.

The fun derives from the eccen­tricity of the children — all, apart from Gerry, insufferable. My inner Puritan, though, begins to find the splendid Mrs Durrell’s failure to govern her wayward off­spring less amusing than the prod­uction in­­tends. It is an interesting example of how TV’s depiction of reality is so much more warts-and-all than fiction on the page: reading allows us to focus on the significant, and subject everything else to less rigorous scrutiny. On the small screen, everything is displayed equally, and errors and omissions are all the more glaring.

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