LAST week’s TV reflected our current overwhelming theme of disunity in Europe. Television news broadcasts are, I find, less effective a way of marking the fallout from the EU referendum than radio bulletins: events of such monumental consequence lodge better in our imaginations when mediated by the spoken word and recorded sound than when attached to the news footage, to this or that face saying or performing this or that hopeless action.
And I must leave to more informed pens the evaluation of how successfully TV is recording that field of struggle of the greatest import to so many of our compatriots, Euro 2016 (seemingly all channels, all day). England’s ignominious trouncing prompted us all to remember just how much we belong to other constituent parts of the UK, until, one by one, they, too, were knocked out. With three of my eight great-grandparents called “Welsh”, I am, at the time of writing, still able to hold my head up high. I am planning, should the lads from the valleys by any chance reach the final, to overcome my lifelong aversion to football and watch the match.
But these contemporary skirmishes provided an unexpected perspective to last week’s The Centenary of the Battle of the Somme. I base my comments on the highlights programme (BBC2, Friday): these after-the-event round-ups can seem lacklustre compared with live broadcasts, but this time it worked well, and provided, in 90 minutes, a panorama that spanned the night and day of vigil and remembrance.
The events included a great deal of religion, even Christianity, and were good exemplars of the contemporary conundrum for our Established Church: to what extent does our faith and liturgy provide the framework, the overall meaning within which a wide range of other secular materials can be presented, or have we now become merely one among the range of responses on offer, each treating all the others with respect but none claiming priority? Music, symbolic action, prayer — all are equal, and we are free to browse among the proffered menu of communal experience.
I am sanguine enough to think that it hasn’t come to that yet, that the verse, melody, and ceremony drew much of their strength from a half-remembered shared faith, a vocabulary of sacrifice and redemption that makes sense only in the shape of the cross, to which the cameras were drawn again and again.
We swooped from the Queen’s inauguration of the all-night vigil in Westminster Abbey to the great ceremony at Thiepval, and the national service in Manchester Cathedral. As is common nowadays, microphone and spotlight were shared between princes, schoolchildren, political leaders, services personnel, and professional actors and musicians. The images — especially the lighted gravestones at Thiepval, or blank emptiness, as the weather veered between sunshine, torrential rain, and dusk — added depth to the words and sentiments.
That we should expend so much imagination and energy recalling the carnage adds further irony to the underlying question: have we learned anything in 100 years?