Review of 2017: television

21 December 2017

Channel 4

Superlative: Elisabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4, June, July, August)

Superlative: Elisabeth Moss as Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale (Channel 4, June, July, August)

IT IS worth considering the image of British life that extraterrestrial life-forms would construct if their only source of evidence was the basic TV channels (presumably some­­­one, or something, in outer space is monitoring them closely, if only in drawing up plans for our invasion or colonisation). This past year would show them a wealth of magnificent documentaries on every conceivable subject — politics, science, art — and demonstrate that there is no longer any serious interest in religion — or, at least, not Christian religion (you can always find funding for programmes about Islam).

Apart from a few Eastertide offerings, only BBC4’s series about life in monasteries gave full-on serious coverage to the subject, and it was significantly entitled Retreat (24-26 October). But deeper analysis would uncover something odd: reli­gion, even Christianity, keeps pop­ping up in programmes about other things.

One rich source this last year has been a crop of celebrity travelogues, which gave far more attention to matters spiritual than I suspect their presenters could forese: for example, The Ganges with Sue Perkins (BBC1, 1, 8, 15 November) and Russia with Simon Reeves (BBC2, 18, 25 Oct­ober, 2 Novem­ber).

This latter plugs into another fecund theme: the centenary of the October Revolution, with BBC2’s Russia 1917: Countdown to revolu­tion (9 November), which suggested that the cataclysmic event was nothing like as inevitable as we might usually think. Revolution: New art for a new world (BBC4, 6 November) suggested that rejection of Orthodoxy created an atheism with surprisingly close parallels to the religion that it excoriated.

Channel 4Significant offering: Tom Holland in Isis: The origins of violence (Channel 4, 17 May)

History and religion remain a fertile source of documentaries: Tom Holland’s Isis: The origins of violence (Channel 4, 17 May) was a part­icularly significant offering. The up­­­heavals in contemporary politics produced several programmes about the person and policies of Donald Trump, notable for their general sense of being uncertain whether they were portraying fact or a ghastly fiction. One of the themes of Brexit was seen in the perspective of history by Ian His­lop’s Who Should We Let In? (BBC2, 22 June).

But our bemused Martian might be surprised by the way in which the news coverage of the Grenfell Tower fire showed whole armies of people whose eagerness to help, to care, and to engage with the suffer­ing of others was inspired by their faith — even, apparently, irrelevant Chris­­tianity.

And how odd that soap operas, those sup­posed mirrors of con­temporary British life, should punctuate their fevered narratives with the Occa­sional Offices of the Established Church! How would EastEnders (BBC1) fill its storyline without baptisms, weddings, and funerals?

The year’s drama has reinforced the popular view of religion: Channel 4’s superlative The Handmaid’s Tale (June, July, August) portrayed a chil­ling cocktail of fundamentalist repression and misogyny.

Yet, per­­haps the real truth about the state that we are in is revealed in 2017’s unexpected runaway suc­­cess: what if, on the 50th anni­versary of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, we are, as ITV would have us believe, de­­spite every­­thing, deep down, a Love Island?

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