IT IS curiously reassuring that, among fictional villains, there is some sense of fraternity. The photo that Darth Vader (aka James Earl Jones) sent to Rolf (the Nazi boyfriend in The Sound of Music, aka Daniel Truhitte) was signed with the epigram “Somebody has to be the bad guy.” One would love to think that Gollum and Davros, Lord Voldemort and Mr Burns engaged in similar acts of reciprocal encouragement.
But Rolf and Darth Vader share more than a mere penchant for the Dark Side. They are, according to Professor Alec Ryrie’s Archive on 4 (Radio 4, Saturday), both chips off a very particular block: archetypes in a drama of good and evil which dates back to the Second World War and the greatest villain of them all, Adolf Hitler.
Evil has never been the same since the world witnessed a civilisation corrupted and horrors both dramatic and banal enacted at every level of society. Until then, the exemplars of evil came in many shapes and sizes, from Herod to Attila the Hun. But, in the appropriately chilling words of one contributor here, Hitler “sucked all the air out of the room”.
Dr Ryrie is a professor of the history of Christianity, and his thesis goes that, in the second half of the past century, any vestige of Christianity remaining in our nation’s “sacred story” was overtrodden by the Manichaean struggle of good versus evil. Rather than benchmark our behaviour against the ultimate good of Christ, we now have a vivid embodiment of the ultimate evil — one that is re-embodied in countless ways on television and the big screen.
It is a compelling account, and no less so for leaving one with many questions worth pursuing. For instance, somebody should give Dr Sam Brewitt-Taylor a chance to follow up on his intriguing argument about the Church in the 1960s, whose apparent willingness to accept a more secular expression of morality in public life contributed to this reconfiguration of our sacred story.
There is surely no nation on earth whose sacred story is more contested than Israels. And the story might have taken a very different turn were it not for the events of 4 November 1995. In The Most Successful Assassination in History (Radio 4, Monday of last week), Jonathan Freedland argued that the death of Yitzhak Rabin at the hands of a Jewish Nationalist gunman changed irrevocably the course of Middle Eastern politics: the tentative peace formalised with Yasser Arafat on the steps of the White House two years earlier unravelled within a year of Rabin’s murder.
The drama is almost unbearable: the ambulance getting lost on the way to the hospital, and then being halted for crucial minutes at the entrance. We heard from the bodyguard, to this day feeling the guilt and shame of his failure; and clips from the heartbreaking eulogy given by Rabin’s granddaughter. Twenty-five years later, this is a story that still offers no closure.
Space allows for only honourable mention of the brilliant contribution by Dr Kathryn Mannix to The Moral Maze (Radio 4, Wednesday of last tweek), giving the perspective of a palliative-care specialist on the “morality of mortality”. Catch it from 18 minutes in.