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TV review: Talking Heads: The hand of God, Italy’s Frontline: A doctor’s diary, and The Luminaries

10 July 2020

BBC/London Theatre Company/Zac Nicholson

Kristin Scott Thomas as Celia, the owner of an antiques shop, in Talking Heads (BBC1, Thursday of last week)

Kristin Scott Thomas as Celia, the owner of an antiques shop, in Talking Heads (BBC1, Thursday of last week)

GOD is not mocked. BBC1 offers us wondrous heights of TV drama as it broadcasts new realisations of that classic sequence of plays which can now be seen — although written as far back as 1988 — as an uncanny an­­­ticipation of the constraints that would limit television production during the coronavirus pandemic.

Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads (weekdays) are, of course, mono­logues, relying entirely on words and not actions. A fixed camera and remotely controlled depth of field are all that’s required — apart from actors of superlatively subtle expres­sion and modulation, who are able to convey not just complex emotion in an expression, a silence, a glance, but also reveal to us, simultaneously, their characters’ contrasting truths, both their public face and their inner reality. Often, this is an aching void of loneliness, pain, and frustration.

These are comedies that mask deep personal tragedy, usually man­aged as a slow burn of horrifying realisation as, bit by bit, we learn what is really going on. A selection of the original pieces have been recast, along with two new plays, filmed in what could be considered — as high art supersedes banality — an act of ritual cleansing on the currently vacant set of EastEnders.

We have, today, quite as great a group of actors as the original cast list. Many of the plays pay more attention to religion and vicars than we would accept as re­­alistic today (an anachronism shared, oddly enough, with EastEnders), God and faith being, for Bennett, an itch that he cannot quite stop scratching.

In The Hand Of God (Thursday of last week), wonderful Kristin Scott Thomas is a failing antiques dealer, superior to, and contemp­tuous of, her more populist rivals. But she misses the pearl of great price: being snobbishly above watch­ing The South Bank Show means that she fails to recognise, and so sells for a paltry sum, an original Michel­angelo study for God’s finger on the Sistine Chapel ceiling, worth mil­lions.

It is a profound moral fable: she knows everything except what really matters. Lightly signalled earlier on — she admired an embroidered chalice veil, thinking how valuable it would be “if only a use could be found for it” — she has no perception of the holy.

Perhaps risking your life trying to provide humanity and dignity for acutely ill patients will count well enough for holiness: it certainly seemed so as we watched Italy’s Front­­­line: A doctor’s diary (BBC2, Monday of last week). Francesca Mangiatordi works in A&E in Cre­mona, the city worst hit by Covid-19. It was a wonderful account of courage and, amid all the agony and dying, enduring compassion.

The Luminaries, the current Sunday-evening costume drama on BBC1, is set in the 1860s New Zealand gold rush. It is exquisitely beautiful and evocative. Does any­one have any idea what is going on?

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