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TV review: Icons, and Cleaning Up

18 January 2019

BBC/72 Films

ICONS (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) sought to determine the most inspiring figure of the 20th century

ICONS (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) sought to determine the most inspiring figure of the 20th century

ICONS (BBC2, Tuesday of last week) is not, alas, an exploration of the devotional art of our Orthodox sisters and brothers, but, rather, seeks to determine the most inspiring figure of the 20th century. Each programme considers a specific category, such as scientist, entertainer, or sportsperson.

Which group is conspicuous by its absence? Religion, of course. The BBC takes so little notice of its own news and current affairs as to hold to the worn-out assumption that faith is a disappearing private matter, irrelevant to public affairs.

Each programme extols the virtues of four individuals “chosen by experts”. Emboldened by the obvious success of national referendums as a method of deciding an important issue, we, the viewers, are supposed to cast votes for our favourite. A final vote will determine the overall winners.

In the first programme, we saw four leaders presented by Trevor McDonald, who was able to recount his own interviews with two of them. Our choice was limited to Churchill, Roosevelt, Thatcher, and Mandela.

The exercise valuably forces us to consider what really counts as leadership. If it is the ability to change the course of history, to move nations in a completely new direction, then Stalin, Hitler, and Mao Zedong have as much right to be considered as the chosen four.

There is, of course, an unspoken assumption: the programme means change for good, a virtuous transformation. This, no doubt, will lie behind how people cast their votes, and it is a really important issue: was Thatcher’s or Roosevelt’s economic and social legacy better for humankind? Which is the best pattern for the future: Churchill’s implacable resistance to Nazism or Mandela’s astonishing rejection of bitterness and hatred, embodying forgiveness and reconciliation?

ITV’s new drama series Cleaning Up (Wednesdays) presents a neat contrast in social and moral values: is Sam’s addiction to online gambling — which has already cost her her marriage, and is likely to mean that her beloved children are taken away — more morally reprehensible than the trading in stocks and shares by the Canary Wharf company whose office she cleans?

As her debts spiral, she overhears one of the traders indulging in insider trading, and sets up her own account to reap some illegal profits. To do so, she brings her best friends into the circle of crime; and one of the strengths of Sheridan Smith’s splendid performance is the plausibility of her persuasion. The poor characters work for people who have become rich and valued pillars of our society by, essentially, a grand form of legal betting.

She has got through life by cutting corners, plausibly playing one debt off against another. With a different background, she would make a very effective trader. Instead, we are surely watching an unfolding disaster that will bring ruin to all around her.

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