TV review: Holst: The Planets with Professor Brian Cox, and Summer of Rockets

07 June 2019

BBC/Mark Allan

Professor Brian Cox

Professor Brian Cox

LEAVING aside royal weddings and Christmas, the last thing you would expect to hear on TV nowadays is a sermon; then, on Saturday, we got six in a row.

Holst: The Planets with Professor Brian Cox (BBC2, Saturday) recorded a remarkable event: in a packed Barbican Concert Hall the work was splendidly performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, illustrated by breathtaking colour stage-wide images of what we now know — thanks to space probes — the celestial bodies actually look like.

Brian Cox explained, planet by planet, the latest scientific understanding of their characteristics, make-up, and properties.

He was fully alert to how different this approach was to Holst’s understanding, which was mythological, classical, and astrological, but was bold enough to suggest that current astronomical knowledge enhances — modifies, even — our appreciation of the music. What struck me most, however, was the tone of Cox’s lectures: personal, engaging, moralistic. From the story of each planet he urged an action, and a way of living.

They were, in fact, sermons — and very good ones, if only he had included the rather significant missing ingredient, i.e. God. I understand that Cox doesn’t think that God exists, the hard science he shares so impressively with us driving nail after nail into the coffin of any lingering religious impulse. We, in contrast, draw the opposite conclusion: this universe of chance and dynamic transformation, with elusive and yet infinite possibilities of even life itself, is exactly what we would expect from the creator God revealed to us in Jesus.

This broadcast was parallel to Cox’s new series The Planets (BBC2, Tuesdays), which focuses each week on the worlds that orbit our sun. Why is the Earth so different from all the others? We now know that the truth is far more complex than hitherto thought: each of the inner four planets, made of roughly the same chemical ingredients, had a moment when life might have evolved. This, too, is morality: Earth’s life is a fleeting window, not fixed for eternity.

Stephen Poliakoff’s latest drama Summer of Rockets (BBC2, Wednesdays), set in 1958, sees the launch of satellites that will make Cox’s science possible; the threat of nuclear war; and the final Season when débutantes were presented to the Queen. The plot is whimsical and preposterous, but the personal themes — an outsider desperate to belong, the inventor of superior hearing aids forced by MI5 to spy on his friends, childhood incomprehension and anguish — are moving and compelling.

Last Monday’s episode of BBC2’s splendid documentary series Thatcher: A very British revolution had the unforeseen context of news bulletins awash with the resignation of our second woman Prime Minister. Sic transit . . .

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