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Review of the Year 2019: TV

20 December 2019


BBC News presenter Huw Edwards conducts an interview in Westminster, in March

BBC News presenter Huw Edwards conducts an interview in Westminster, in March

THE most important TV this year, the programmes that most of us tuned into most frequently and that provided most food for thought and subjects for our conversation, were, surely, the ones that I hardly ever refer to: the News.

Day by day, most of us have been drawn by unholy magnetism to the unfolding account of national impotence and incompetence, more than ever an addictive soap opera, the same over-familiar characters acting out the same repeated plotlines.

Many of the best factual documentaries added depth and resonance to the themes played out: in particular, those celebrating significant anniversaries, such as the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, reminded us of when our relationship with Europe was based on common goals and aspirations, achieved through great and terrible cost.

The 20th anniversary of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement was marked by programmes (especially The Troubles: A secret history, BBC4), reminding us how desperately urgent is a satisfactory resolution to the Northern Ireland/Eire border issue.

Other subject-crossover between the news and other broadcasts abounded. Natural-history programmes, above all Sir David Attenborough’s Seven Worlds, One Planet (BBC1), sound ever more insistently the note of impending disaster caused by climate change.

The struggles of refugees and asylum-seekers inspired not only sombre documentaries, but even comedies: Home (Channel 4), and Don’t Forget the Driver (BBC2). All the channels continued their love affair with blockbuster drama series, more ambitious and glossy than ever, our extraordinary range of brilliant actors employed again and again in costume, contemporary, even future-based dramas. The results have been somewhat mixed, although I note that, with the popular crime-thriller genre (ever more sickeningly violent), satisfactory progress is upset in the final reel when the denoument seeks to tie up too many loose ends while simultaneously leaving the door open for future series.

BBC/Palomar/11 Marzo FilmWilliam of Basquerville (John Turturro) in The Name of the Rose (BBC2)

And what about the Christian religion? Back to the News, where Holy Week’s bulletins were dominated by terrible images of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame on fire. It was instructive to analyse the coverage: TV clearly realised that this was an event of great importance, which affected most people deeply — but did not really know why, falling back on such inadequacies as the impressive tourist numbers.

Not only have the newsrooms almost no vocabulary of living faith: they lack basic cultural reference. Did no one know the central part that the cathedral played in medieval philosophy and music, our common heritage? Did no one realise how right it would be to play Olivier Latry’s improvisation on La Marseillaise (it’s on YouTube)?

There were heaps of Christianity, of course, in The Name of the Rose (BBC2), and, pervertedly, in His Dark Materials (BBC1). And many viewers must have noted the insistence in Gentleman Jack (BBC1) that, to cement their union, the lesbian lovers should take communion together.

But our faith’s greatest TV success, the one that gripped the imagination of the chattering classes, was whether, in Fleabag (BBC1), Fleabag would actually “get it together” with her priest.

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