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Island in the sun

13 January 2017

BBC SCOTLAND

Enthusiasts: Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney contains remarkable findings

Enthusiasts: Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney contains remarkable findings

EPISCOPAL ministry is clearly enhanced when your bishop begins each day with an invigorating swim; but it is obviously a bonus if that means, rather than shivering at the local municipal baths, plunging instead into the warm clear waters of the Caribbean.

The Bishop of the North Eastern Caribbean & Aruba, the Rt Revd Leroy Errol Brooks, is the key subject of An Island Parish: Anguilla (BBC2, Mondays). This presents a positive view of the Anglican Communion, focusing on preparations for the Palm Sunday Passion play rather than arguments about same-sex marriage. Unfortunately, the result, as far as last week’s first programme was concerned, was bland to the point of bathos.

The island has always been poor in natural resources; so tourism is vital to its economy. The grounds manager of the most exclusive complex unashamedly showed off how, in the face of hopelessly poor soil, she paints the grass green to satisfy her exacting clients. This Alice-in-Wonderland atmosphere permeated the whole; but at least the Revd Charles Dodgson would have known (as the narrator apparently did not) the difference between a diocese and a parish.

A pleasing opportunity to compare and contrast was afforded by the scheduling, immediately afterwards, also on BBC2, of another documentary about an island, in Britain’s Ancient Capital: Secrets of Orkney. This adopts the format, designed to excite viewers, of employing a team of hands-on young enthusiasts, desperate to scale cliff faces or plumb the depths of oceans to find out for themselves rather than ask the people who have done the research.

But here the findings are so remarkable as to overcome the shortcomings of the presentation. We have all come to appreciate how remarkable is the assemblage of prehistoric monuments in Orkney: the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, Maeshowe. Current research is indicating, however, that, rather than a spectacular outpost of the Neolithic, it is so much earlier than Stonehenge and the rest as to make it much more likely that here was the epicentre of megalithic culture, and that its influence spread throughout Britain and beyond.

This overturns the assumption that every innovation always starts in the warm south and gradually disseminates into the cold north.

Talking of the warm south, Italy’s Invisible Cities (BBC1, Wednesday of last week) employed the highest available technology to delve underground. Laser scanners created jaw-dropping 3D images of the spectacular subterranean chambers beneath Naples and its neighbours. The rock is, of course, solidified Vesuvian magma; so what seems immemorial is of historically recent deposit. Alexander Armstrong and Michael Scott are clued-up guides, and I took the whole thing to be a highly attractive meditation on mutability and death.

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