WHO would have thought that the holy women of Cyprus who bedeck with flowers the bier of Christ in expectation of his Easter resurrection are really channelling their ancestors’ immemorial mourning over the corpse of Adonis, dead for his love of Aphrodite, the goddess of love having morphed into the Virgin Mary?
The classicist Bettany Hughes has always taken religion seriously in her explorations of ancient history and culture. In Venus Uncovered: Ancient goddess of love (BBC4, Wednesday of last week), she told a complex story, starting with prehistoric figurines unashamedly proclaiming the centrality of sex and procreation, to Greek acknowledgement of the ambivalent power of love and desire, and Christian banishment of the erotic and exaltation of virgin chastity.
The Renaissance added a further development: the rediscovery of the classical nude enabled the wealthy to gaze, privately, on alluring depictions of naked girls and boys while publicly subscribing to a sterner morality. Hughes made a plea for a rediscovery of the ancient mixture of sex and love, passion and destruction — a condition to long for and also to fear.
Sex was a crucial theme of Toffs, Queers and Traitors: Guy Burgess — the charming spy: Storyville (BBC4, Monday of last week). Guy Burgess’s career in espionage was based on an extraordinary paradox: his behaviour was so outrageous, so promiscuous as to throw off suspicion. No spy could possibly behave like this, surely?
At Cambridge, he was a member of the exclusive society the Apostles, whose predominant homosexuality was a spur to betrayal: if my society rejects me, then I will reject it in turn.
A pre-First World War manifestion of the world of the Apostles, Bloomsbury, and dabbling in socialism provides the milieu for Howards End, BBC1’s Sunday-evening costume drama. E. M. Forster’s novel is deliberately acknowledged as the basis of the series — more at arm’s length than an adaptation.
It seems to me that this faithfully presents the book’s careful depiction of social complexity: the high-minded and well-meaning liberalism of the Schlegel family drops them into scrapes and misunderstandings both with the capitalist men of action and also the aspiring lower classes.
It works away at the question: in this new world of social mobility and aspiration, where do we belong — in a succession of leasehold city-centre properties, or in the ancient peace of Howards End, symbol of an older security?
Looking over the garden wall at our neighbour’s property, wondering what they get up to, may be a fairly common urban activity. For the next few weeks, my curiosity will be slaked by ITVBe’s Tamara’s World (Wednesdays), which films in glorious detail the life of Tamara Ecclestone, who lives next door to us. How odd that a TV company should think her lifestyle of greater public interest than that of our trendsetting vicarage.