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Recognisably human

12 January 2018

Little Women (BBC1); McMafia (BBC1); A Stitch in Time (BBC4)

BBC/Playground/Patrick Redmond

Religion pervades Little Women (BBC1, 26, 27, and 28 December)

Religion pervades Little Women (BBC1, 26, 27, and 28 December)

HAVING been so scathing last week about Christmas TV representations of the clergy, I ought, in fairness, to admit that I was hardly presenting the complete picture.

BBC1 screened Little Women (26, 27, and 28 December), and the March sisters’ father is, of course, a minis­ter, who leaves them at home while he acts as chaplain to Union troops fighting in the American Civil War.

In fact, we get very little sense of his religion, but its influence per­vades the whole. This is a household based on Christian faith and prac­tice. Realistically, the drama, like the novel, presents its good actions, including the family’s decision to give away their longed-for Christ­mas breakfast to a starving family, as achieved in the teeth of the natural inclination to enjoy it themselves.

It is a more radical work than often thought — a theme underlined by this presentation. Jo’s determina­tion to move to New York and live by her writing is an act of liberation; striking out independently of a piece with their own conviction that pro­per parenting is to encourage one’s children to find and make their own way in the world, not strive to main­tain the innocence of childhood.

In the end, its moral world is rel­atively circumscribed: the rich neigh­­bour won over with surprising ease; the curmudgeonly wealthy aunt reveal­ing her true heart of gold a little too easily. But this was a production with luminous and moving perform­ances from all.

By contrast BBC1 offered a shock­ing portrayal of corruption in McMafia (1, 2, and 7 January).

This thriller is based on Misha Glenny’s investigation into the world of international crime. We watch as the hero, Alex Godman, is sucked into his Russian family’s murky underworld, all his first-rate English education and upbringing successively hollowed out.

It is a revenge tragedy; but, more important, we see layer after layer of Alex’s honesty and hope stripped away, ruthless self-interest the only viable compass. Incredibly glossy, is the stylish production itself slightly in thrall to the glamour of its loca­tions and settings? We are supposed to set our bearings by revulsion at the vile acts of brutality that punc­tuate the action — but perhaps all the luxury yachts and caviar are worth a little roughing up?

If there is one thing that unites all right-thinking clergy it is the love of dressing up. In the new series A Stitch In Time (BBC4, Wednes­days), the fashion historian Amber Butchart encourages us to think hard about the significance of what our vesture says about us — while also having fun along the way. Week by week, she starts with a significant historical portrait, and, by com­missioning its manufacture using only the materials and techniques of the time, reveals far more than might be expected about the social and cultural context.

Last week, she looked extremely fetching in a reconstruction of one of Charles II’s costumes — but I couldn’t help noticing a key discrep­ancy: he was a bloke and she is a gal.

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