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TV Review: Vienna Blood, Greg Davies: Looking for Kes, and Scuffles, Swagger And Shakespeare: The hidden story of English

29 November 2019

BBC/MR Film/Endor

Dr Max Liebermann (Matthew Beard) in Vienna Blood (BBC2, Monday of last week)

Dr Max Liebermann (Matthew Beard) in Vienna Blood (BBC2, Monday of last week)

OUT goes one mystery — and in comes another. At the start of the new costume crime series Vienna Blood (BBC2, Monday of last week), as the beautiful victim’s body is discovered, the ancient concierge is unceremoniously bundled out of the room for daring to hold her crucifix and mumble prayers. That mumbo-jumbo has had its day! But is another lurking in the shadows, waiting to take over?

Our hero, young Dr Max Liebermann, is here to study under Sigmund Freud: has scientific rationalism won the field, or will the Oedipus complex prove merely an alternative source of faith and fear? Nowhere else was the turn of the 20th century marked by so many of the revolutions that would dominate Western thought and culture, and they are all impressively on display here. A key episode takes place at an exhibition of works by Gustav Klimt; and, at a musical soirée, the pianist is Gustav Mahler.

Vienna itself is the epicentre of sophistication and social grace, and yet Liebermann and his family experience the ugly reality of anti-Semitism: we cannot escape our awareness of how vilely that will end.

This murder mystery is vastly superior to most in its cultural reference and intellectual underpinning. The actual crimes and their fortuitous detection are, alas, the usual old tosh. But the characters are compelling, and the whole thing is a satisfying entertainment, complete with an OU history unit thrown in, gratis. Just ignore the plot and swoon over the chandeliers.

Equally seismic social revolutions informed Greg Davies: Looking for Kes (BBC4, Tuesday of last week). This was a personal pilgrimage to the settings of Barry Hines’s 1968 novel A Kestrel for A Knave, better known to many through Ken Loach’s remarkable film Kes. Barnsley, then, was still dominated by mining, the confinement of an underground life of toil contrasting utterly with the ancient natural liberty of hawk and falconer. The pits are now gone, and the stone cottages are scrubbed clean; would the book still resonate with anyone? The answer was a resounding Yes.

Children told him how much they were still inspired by it; the school resonates with its message; a chip shop and the Working Men’s Club are proud of the connection; and the boy who played Billy is still a local hero, loved by all. The book now encourages a different kind of liberation: how literature and the imagination encourage the possibility of a different, richer life.

In Scuffles, Swagger And Shakespeare: The hidden story of English (BBC4, 12 November), Dr John Gallagher showed how our language became gloriously rich during Elizabeth I’s reign. This was not, as he thinks we believe, all due to Shakespeare: it was because (thanks to Continental Reformation persecution) London was thronged with foreigners, bringing their tongues with them to our advantage. Brexiteers, kindly note.

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