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TV review: Our Classical CenturyDon McCullin: Looking for England, and Pure

15 February 2019


Suzy Klein and John Simpson, who co-presented last week’s episode of Our Classical Century (BBC4, Thursday of last week)

Suzy Klein and John Simpson, who co-presented last week’s episode of Our Classical Century (BBC4, Thursday of last week)

IT IS always good to start and end in church; so the latest episode of Suzy Klein’s Our Classical Century (BBC4, Thursday of last week) scored highly in that regard, bookending her survey in Westminster Abbey with two coronations — George VI and our own Queen — but the filling in the sandwich was the extent of the part played by classical music in the Second World War.

Perhaps the most moving chapter was the account of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, written in Leningrad while it was under siege by Germans trying to starve the city into submission. The score was spirited out by subterfuge worthy of any spy thriller, and received its rapturous Western première in the 1942 Proms. Here was the human spirit triumphing over the worst that human aggression can inflict.

Klein’s co-presenter was John Simpson, journalist and war corres­pondent (Back-page interview, 25 January): he reckons that Shostakovich recreates better than any other composer what it is like to be caught up in battle. The British part in the story is worthy enough: the free classical recitals that Myra Hess offered daily in the National Gallery, denuded of its pictures, attracted the widest audiences.

Here, Klein missed a vital point. The first concert opened with Mozart, and the signature tune was Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring”; so the performances proclaimed the true spirit of Germany. Undermining the Nazi dogma of poisonous hatred, they were expressions of solidarity.

No church, alas, in Don McCullin: Looking for England (BBC4, Mon­day of last week). McCullin, now 83, is a revered war photographer, but his first assignments were photo essays about the hidden Britain of slums and poverty. Half a century later, he revisited many of these scenes, starting with his child­hood in Finsbury Park, in north London.

But this was no account of unalloyed misery. McCullin’s lens is kindly, delighting in British eccentricity. Glyndebourne, a fox­hunt, an Eastbourne bandstand concert playing on through drenching rain — all these he relishes. There are no churches, but certainly religion, as McCullin portrays the town centre taken over by a huge procession celebrating a Muslim festival. He finds plenty to celebrate in our diversity and continuing sheer oddity.

Pure (Channel 4, Wednesdays) is anything but. The sweet heroine, Marnie, suffers from a terrible affliction: she cannot stop herself imagining all those she meets, and every situation in which she finds herself, engaged in the most explicit and degrading sexual activity. Every journey on the Tube, or every conference at work, is transformed inside her head into a disgusting orgy. Her ability to function in society is, as we might expect, severely curtailed.

Is this a raunchy comedy, or is it a tragedy, offering a serious metaphor for today’s over-sexualised Britain?

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