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TV review: Mountain, The Woman in White, and Cunk on Britain

04 May 2018


Jennifer Peedom’s film Mountain (BBC 4), narrated by Willem Dafoe, explored the allure of high places

Jennifer Peedom’s film Mountain (BBC 4), narrated by Willem Dafoe, explored the allure of high places

IT BEGAN and ended with religion. Last Sunday, BBC4 broadcast a remarkable meditation, Mountain, which explored the allure of the high places of this earth, pointing out that only in the past few centuries have they have been considered with anything other than awe and dread, the abode of either gods or demons, requiring placatory rituals to neut­ralise their terrifying forces.

The faith was Tibetan Buddhism, its prayer wheels, fluttering prayer flags, and chanted incantations the response of a people who have made their home with the danger and exaltation of the Himalayas.

The notion that we might, for pleasure, choose to climb mountains is a recent development in human history. We saw marvellous archive footage of the early ascents of Everest itself. Jennifer Peedom’s wonderful film had the rare virtue of significant stretches of absolute silence; and, in other sequences, one of the most intelligent musical scores I can remember, using brilliantly chosen works played by the Australian Chamber Orchestra.

But, above all, it is the images that remain in the mind: swooping vistas of rock, snow, and ice, of unimaginable human endeavour and foolhardiness pitted against the vastness. Are we conquering the mountain, or is it conquering us? Are we approaching with awe the abode of the gods, or cheapening it into our playground? As a commentary on how we relate to creation itself, it could hardly be bettered.

BBC1’s adaptation of The Woman in White (Sundays) is “based on” Wilkie Collins’s masterpiece. Particular themes have certainly been significantly expanded; Marion is too attractive; we miss Count Fosco’s menacing bulk and pet canary; and we must suffer distressingly anachronistic dialogue. Despite all this, I find it powerfully true to the essence of the novel: a complex presentation of the indignities suffered by 19th-century women, Britain’s apparent pinnacle of civilisation exposed as a hollow sham, under­mined by greed and vanity; the weak and poor utterly at the mercy of the rich and powerful.

Moral strength belongs to Marion: all the men fall short in one way or another. She confounds Victorian expectation of what a heroine should be like, being neither pretty nor eventually winning true love. As a portrait of an admirable woman, it is something that 21st-century fiction, film, and TV may catch up with one day.

For analysis of the state of our nation it would be best to avoid Cunk On Britain (BBC2, Tuesdays). The spoof presenter, Philomena Cunk, played by Diane Morgan, gives less an account of our island story and more a withering exposé of the inanities of populist TV documentaries, stitched together with cliché and convention and fronted by people without the slightest knowledge of the subject in hand — or, indeed, anything.

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