Make-believe king

19 May 2017

BBC/Drama Republic

Unconvincing: the Archbishop of Canterbury (John Shrapnel) and King Charles III (Tim Pigott-Smith), in King Charles III (BBC2, Wednesday of last week)

Unconvincing: the Archbishop of Canterbury (John Shrapnel) and King Charles III (Tim Pigott-Smith), in King Charles III (BBC2, Wednesday of last week)

THE Archbishop of Canterbury looked really cross: but then, you would, if a coronation was reaching its climax and someone snatched the crown out of your hands. The snatcher was the former king, who ought to have been being crowned himself. This was the most religious bit of King Charles III (BBC2, Wed­nes­­day of last week).

One of the most intriguing things about this TV adaptation of Mike Bartlett’s successful play has been the interest it has stirred up in the chat­tering classes — those most likely to proclaim that the monarchy is an irrelevant anachronism.

It seems that if you want to ex­­amine issues of power, influence, and society in Britain today, it remains a particularly potent vehicle. Charles’s first act on accession is to refuse to sign into law legislation that will fetter the press; he is standing up for the people’s ancient liberties, at whatever personal cost to himself.

This develops into full-scale con­flict as he invokes the royal prerog­ative and dissolves Parliament. Prince Edward stages a family coup; his father abdicates; and, to popular ac­­claim, Edward and Kate take the throne in his place.

The Shakespearean overtones are explicit, and emphasised by the fact that the play is written in pseudo-16th-century blank verse. Tim Pigott-Smith gave a mes­mer­ising perform­ance of the flawed monarch, des­perate to do the right thing, but doomed to failure. We felt that Eddie and Kate’s triumph was hollow, their popularity shallow in comparison with the profound moral vacillations of Charles.

There was much to admire; but, overall, it was not convincing. The core problem lies in the transfer from stage to television: it employed TV’s convention of supposedly portraying life as it is, in real places. Theatre is always a construct that, by its very artificiality, liberates us to focus on the emotions being played out. The pretended reality of TV points up the unrealities of the scenario, and here this drama fell, heroically, to bits.

Mexico: Earth’s festival of life (BBC2, Sundays) is a three-part docu­mentary where the spectacular flora and fauna depicted are related to the history and culture of this extra­ordinary land. The first episode fo­­cused on the mountain country and its Aztec roots, culminating in the candle-filled celebration of the Day of the Dead; last Sunday’s on the re­­markable Yucatán peninsula.

This huge limestone slab is a two-tier universe, the surface lush foliage and wealth of creatures it supports are dependent on a huge subterranean system of underground rivers ac­­cessed via cenotes, or sinkholes. This is only now being explored; so we were seeing a phenomenon in the process of its revelation.

This is a hollow land, dependent on unseen depths for its continuing life. Trees develop roots up to 70 feet long to tap into the water below. Contemporary human development, of course, threatens the continuing existence of this whole wonderful eco-system.

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