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TV review: Beecham House, Catch-22, and Killing Eve

05 July 2019


Beecham House

Beecham House

WE ARE all keen to do everything possible to further interfaith understanding, and ITV is to be applauded in making this a central theme of its new post-Sunday-evensong costume drama, Beecham House.

It is set in pre-Imperial India, when England and France struggled for domination over the native rulers: the era when Westerners had not yet learned to scorn everything achieved by the ancient civilisations of the East, and when native culture was eagerly appreciated, before the British had learned to retreat into their separate world of mulligatawny soup and Gilbert and Sullivan.

Our hero straddles the two worlds: an English trader mysteriously endowed with great wealth, a baby son by a native (but who is the mother?), a devout mother recently arrived from England with the woman she has planned to be his bride in tow. How is the child to be brought up: according to his Hindu maternal roots, or as a Christian gentleman? Can both aspirations be satisfied, a combination of Morning Prayer and evening ghazal?

It is a noble enterprise, but the whole thing is, alas, sumptuous and exotic tosh — a sari-ripper peopled with stock characters: doe-eyed beauties sighing longingly behind lattice screens; faithful native servants; Miss Osborne, the beautiful English governess; and the hero’s ne’er-do-well brother. An exquisite Hindu pavilion has been converted into a chapel to aid the mother’s devotions. It now sports, quite anachronistically, an altar with cross and candlesticks. What she would have wanted, of course, is a three-decker pulpit.

Less theology and more philosophy animates the splendid adaptation of Catch-22 (Channel 4, Thursdays), although one portion of dialogue in the first episode is capable of deep analysis: Yossarian (to his commanding officer’s wife, post-coitus): “But you don’t believe in God.” Mistress: “Yes, but the God I don’t believe in is a good God.”

The philosophical concept explored throughout is that of deep meaninglessness. The inexorable futility of war, and the agony of ever-present death is especially poignant as they bomb their way up through fecund, life-affirming Italy, young lives lost in a war whose tide has already turned. The generals are driven by blood lust and animated by destruction. The only hope, it proposes, lies in exploiting the conflict for some really profitable entrepreneurship, and living for the moment.

Killing Eve (BBC1, Saturdays) is back with its second series, garlanded with BAFTAs. It is no longer written and directed by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, and it shows. We still have the sex and violence, and the sudden changes of tone and register from horror to comedy. But now, the shock is, as it were, expected: we know we are going to be surprised, and that characters and situations will constantly wrong-foot us. It remains a complete triumph of style — just not quite as brilliant as before.

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