TV review: Sacred Wonders and I am Hannah

16 August 2019


The temple of Angkor Wat, featured in Sacred Wonders (BBC1, Wednesdays)

The temple of Angkor Wat, featured in Sacred Wonders (BBC1, Wednesdays)

IT WAS just like every churchwarden following every archdeacon’s advice and immediately rooting out any greenery taking hold of your ancient stonework. But this was no parish church: rather, the highest pinnacle of Angkor Wat’s Buddhist temple, hundreds of feet above the jungle.

The presentation of the world’s great religious buildings and practices, in the new series Sacred Wonders (BBC1, Wednesdays), demonstrates that, whatever the creed or sect, the purely practical business of upkeep and organising liturgy is surprisingly common.

No archdeacon, though, would countenance the reckless disregard of health and safety. In Cambodia, they clamber up unsecured near-vertical ladders, and, for the final 20 feet, climb, barefoot, a slender tree trunk hauled up for the purpose. Less dangerous but more reliably agonising was the Christian offering: the 264 bearers who lacerate their shoulders as they carry, all night long, the enormous golden throne of the Virgen de la Esperanza through the streets of Seville every year. For the bearers, this is a great honour: an acted-out penance and expiation of sins.

There was more physical agony as we watched one of the 100 Buddhist warrior monks of Shaolin’s ancient temple taking his ordination exam. Had he mastered the years of disciplined kung-fu? I found Divinity Tripos bad enough, but at least we did not have to sit a practical paper.

In the extraordinary Hindu temple at Neasden, devotees prepared the 1400 platters of food offered to the gods at the festival of Annakut, then distributed it to the thousands of worshippers. In Jerusalem, despite their 14-hour fast from food and drink during Ramadan, volunteer Muslim paramedics struggle to bring first aid and ambulance services to the people crowding into the Al-Aqsa mosque.

I salute any TV that seeks to demonstrate the universal vitality of religious practice. But why must the narration be so over-emphatic? Why can’t we hear the ancient music of the religious traditions depicted rather than being assaulted by the usual sub-Hollywood mush? And it is hard to take seriously any religious documentary that is unable to differentiate between Maundy Thursday and Easter Thursday — the distinction does, after all, comprise Christianity’s central narrative and belief.

I Am Hannah (Channel 4, Tuesday of last week) had a familiar plot, but was exceptional in every other aspect: simple, powerful, and affecting. Hannah has everything — job, nice flat, financial independence, great looks — but, while her friends marry and have children, she cannot find a partner.

Perhaps she could freeze some of her eggs as insurance? There is a shock, however: the tests reveal that she has very low fertility, and it is probably already too late. So she uses an old flame to try to get pregnant. It is as calculating and love-free as the way in which the men used her. Why, we were challenged, is this so much more disturbing in a woman?

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