TV review: Les Misérables, A Day In The Life Of Earth, and Dinner For One

11 January 2019

BBC/Lookout Point/Mitch Jenkins

Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, and Javert in the BBC’s Les Misérables

Valjean, Fantine, Cosette, and Javert in the BBC’s Les Misérables

WE WON’T see that again. At the turn of the year, a major TV drama portrayed a wonderful act of self-denying charity by a Christian bishop, actually living out his Master’s example of costly love. This shocking departure from today’s media conventions — in which clergy are always ineffectual buffoons or sanc­timonious hypocrites (frequently both) — is best understood as an expression of the Christmastide season of misrule, where everything is turned on its head. Normal service will now be resumed.

This moving depiction appeared in the first episode of BBC1’s magnificent adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables (BBC1, Sundays), for once fully justifying its Sunday-evening slot, as this extended exposition of the themes of guilt, expiation, innocence, and forgiveness is worth any number of evensong sermons. Can a crime against the innocent ever fully be repaid, the stain of sin cleansed? Will the poor and downtrodden always be denied justice, always be condemned to betrayal after betrayal?

By Sunday’s second episode, we saw an abandoned mother, Fantine, dragged down to the deepest degradation; and Valjean’s achievement in bringing prosperity and hope to an entire community hanging by a thread as the unmasking of his criminal past threatens. It is a cry not merely for personal virtue, but for political and civic justice. It should set a proper agenda for all who on Monday morning hold any kind of public office.

A Day In The Life Of Earth (BBC4, New Year’s Eve) was a splendid programme undermined by the determination of the presenter, Hannah Fry, to avoid frightening us with all the serious stuff by putting on an arch voice and illustrating our planet’s science with a homely example from her kitchen or the local coffee shop.

After a 24-hour cycle, we saw how utterly dynamic our world is. There is no unchanging adamantine rock here: everything is in flux, being eroded and built anew, and the colossal amounts of daily losses and gains quantified — so many millions or billions of tonnes. Shocking natural tragedies are simply the inexorable working-out of the processes that make life possible. Does this bring despair, or might it add further depth to our self-understanding?

Those with access to Sky TV may have seen the first broadcast here of a British slapstick sketch dating from 1963 which is wildly popular in Germany and most Northern European countries. Dinner For One (Sky Arts, New Year’s Eve) depicts Miss Sophie’s 90th-birthday party, with, as every year, her four closest friends — except that they all died long ago, and, drinking all their wine, her increasingly inebriate butler, James, impersonates them, to support her illusion that all is well.

It is, of course, a metaphor for today’s Church of England.

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