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Soldiers as angels?

27 October 2017


Remember, remember: Kit Harington as Robert Catesby, the leader of the assassination plot in BBC1’s costume-drama Gunpowder (Saturdays)

Remember, remember: Kit Harington as Robert Catesby, the leader of the assassination plot in BBC1’s costume-drama Gunpowder (Saturdays)

WINNING the lottery brought an explosion of joy: his face suffused with happiness at what lay ahead, his friends and comrades crowding round, their congratulations clearly genuine — this was something that brought pleasure to the whole com­pany. But the prize was not a roll­over Euromillions jackpot: the lucky man had been chosen to drive an armoured truck into enemy territ­ory, and blow as many as possible of the infidel to smithereens alongside himself.

This IS recruiting clip was shown in Army: Behind the new frontlines (BBC2, Wednesday of last week) to demonstrate the kind of foe that our lads are up against. Not that our lads are fighting: rather, they are acting as “guardian angels” to Iraqi gov­ern­­­ment forces, training and adv­ising.

The rhetoric was impressive: they were learning from the mistakes of the last Iraqi conflict, aware that the hard work lies not in the military liberation but rather in what hap­pens thereafter, not treating their charges as second-class human be­­ings. Any one of the local troops whom they are training could be a ter­­rorist, about to turn a weapon on the hated kafir.

The situation has, of course, moved on since the filming: with mil­itary victory has come the greater com­plexity of the coalition’s fighting itself, and the newly trained government forces’ turning on their erstwhile Kurdish partners. So it felt less im­­­mediately current than had no doubt been intended.

Our own religious dark ages are gruesomely on display in Gun­powder, BBC1’s new Saturday-night costume drama that recounts the story behind Bonfire Night. The hero is brooding Robert Catesby; the villain is the diabolical spy­master Robert Cecil. James I and VI is eager to extend toleration to his Roman Catholic sub­jects, but is out­manoeuvred by those for whom every recusant is plotting seditious rebellion.

Sympathy lies clearly with the persecuted RCs: the unbearable sus­pense when your house is torn apart in the search for a priest after a clandestine mass is matched only by the despicable horrors of recusants’ being pressed to death, or hanged, drawn, and quartered. We get some sense of the inextricability of reli­gi­ous faith and political allegiance, but a reminder of the Pope’s excom­munication of Elizabeth I would have produced a more balanced context.

The burning of heretics — by both sides — was shown, mercifully, by a woodcut in Lucy Worsley: Elizabeth I’s battle for God’s music (BBC4, Tuesday of last week): the kind of programme we never expect to find on TV — to wit, extended praise for something done by the Church of England.

She explored the paradox that Eliza­beth championed Protest­antism while insist­ing that the com­plex, professional church music that she loved was not, as her bishops de­­manded, outlawed. The pro­­gres­sion through Reforma­tion to Tallis, Merbecke, and Byrd was lovingly explained and demon­strated: let’s hope that that revival starts here.

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