TV review: The Troubles: A secret history, Python At 50: Silly talks and Holy Grails, and Sanditon

20 September 2019

BBC Spotlight

Darragh MacIntyre, presenter of The Troubles: A secret history (BBC4, Tuesdays)

Darragh MacIntyre, presenter of The Troubles: A secret history (BBC4, Tuesdays)

HAS the Christian religion been given, in recent decades, any worse publicity, any more effective anti-evangelism, than the sectarian hatred and violence played out in Northern Ireland? The Troubles: A secret history (BBC4, Tuesdays) tells the familiar, sickening story of atrocity and outrage but with a wealth of new evidence: hitherto secret documents, candid interviews from participants on both sides, and amateur footage not previously broadcast.

Darragh MacIntyre began at Stormont with the official portraits of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, the elder statesmen who eventually led reconciliation and peace. Perhaps the crucial revelation in last week’s opening episode was evidence of their key roles in fomenting the horrors in the first place.

Film of Mr McGuiness present while a car bomb is assembled confirms what most observers already knew; more startling was the intelligence report that linked Paisley to the initial campaign of bombing infrastructure blamed on the IRA but actually carried out by Protestant extremists to stoke anti-Roman Catholic attitudes. The Civil Rights movement seeking equality for RCs and Protestants alike was not originally sectarian: the IRA exploited the ham-fisted violence of police and the later army response to draw clear opposing battle lines. Our current agonising over the next phase of the relationship between north and south Ireland means that this series could not be more salutary or significant.

“It wasn’t blasphemous: it was heretical.” No doubt the Roman Catholic south and Protestant alike condemned The Life of Brian, central to Python At 50: Silly talks and Holy Grails (BBC2, Saturday of last week). This was familiar material, but there were some new interviews and film snips. I was struck by how thoughtful they are — at least, in retrospect — about the offence caused by Brian. Setting out to make a comic film about Jesus, their preparatory reading of the Gospels persuaded them that they rather supported our Lord’s life and teaching; so they decided instead to lampoon religion, dogma, establishment arrogance, and radical activism.

If you were not a student in the ’60s and ’70s, many of the gags probably fall pretty flat nowadays; it’s horrifying that the stoning to death or crucifixion we then thought to belong to the Middle Ages, are, today, not remotely laughing matters.

A stock disapproving clergyman is among the appalling enormities that mar Sanditon (ITV, Sundays). Post-Sunday-evensong costume dramas are flagship TV; here, Andrew Davies (supposedly the doyen of TV classic adaptors) has not just embraced with gusto the chance to continue the story of which Jane Austen had written only 11 chapters before her death, he has ignored, altered, and coarsened what she did complete. Austen’s delicate, ironic world, and her brilliant interplay between reason and emotion, and romantic sensibility and economic and social reality, is blown out of the water. Everything is exaggerated, vulgarised, and sexualised, and a brilliant cast is wasted

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