Good will to all

08 January 2016

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BY SEARCHING diligently, you could find the Archbishop of Canterbury’s New Year Message (BBC1, New Year’s Day). His Grace gave us serious stuff: a canteen lunch at a comprehensive school led to the story of one of the pupils, a refugee from genocide.

As the chapel in Canterbury Cathedral given in the 16th century to French Protestant refugees demonstrates, the welcome of strangers is central to our heritage, and grows out of the Christmas story.

All this is fine, but it is not, alas, the whole truth. Surely the message would have been stronger if it had acknowledged our medieval expulsion of the Jews; the martyrdom of Roman Catholics at the same time as we welcomed fellow Protestants; our ingrained racism.

Archbishop Welby’s message was a crucial expression of how Christians (and, for that matter, Muslims, Jews, and anyone of good will) should treat their neighbour, but would have benefited from a contrast between this fine aspiration and our more prevailing desire to build impregnable walls around us.

The refugee crisis highjacked Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe (BBC2, Wednesday of last week). This scabrous dissection of the year’s news — and, in particular, the absurd way in which it is reported and manipulated by the popular media — is an annual opportunity to unleash sarcastic hilarity; but Brooker’s serious reaction to the hysteric response to would-be immigrants, and the way their portrayal lurched from a sub-human swarm to tragic individuals, then back again to a terrorist threat, betrayed the savage indignation that fuels the great tradition of British political satire.

As always, it raised the troubling question: does holding monstrosity up to ridicule actually change anything, or is political action the only way to effect reform?

And Then There Were None (BBC1, Boxing Day, Sunday, and Monday of last week) was a stylish account of Agatha Christie’s novel of a somewhat different name, chronicling the successive murders of a group assembled in a storm-swept island hotel, all of whom, it transpires, have blood on their hands. The acting and suspense were admirable.

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I must object to the coarsening of the tale, however. Not the unimportant sexualising of the relationships, but, rather, the gloating depiction of the deaths, mangled corpses, and, in particular, the extended hanging of Miss Claythorne. This transforms the teasing whodunnit into a sadistic exercise in which we become grubbily complicit.

Of course, there is a sadistic element in Christie’s work, but in the novels it is kept in check by the twists and turns of the plot. Curiously, it occurred to me that the process undertaken was the theologically seasonal one of incarnation: the director of this adaptation decided that, on the TV screen, nothing would be left to our imagination — it must be depicted.

The enfleshing of murder denies us the comfort of thinking that we are only being entertained; we are witnessing horrible suffering, not justified by the victim’s guilt. The ethical basis is vengeance; and repentance, reform, and redemption must not be allowed to spoil the story.

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