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TV review: In the Face of Terror, Grayson Perry’s Big American Road Trip, and Michael Palin: Travels of a lifetime

16 October 2020

BBC/Expectation Entertainment/Carl and Marsha Mueller

Carl and Marsha Mueller appeal to IS for the safe release of their daughter, Kayla, in In the Face of Terror (BBC2, Monday of last week) . She was later killed in Syria

Carl and Marsha Mueller appeal to IS for the safe release of their daughter, Kayla, in In the Face of Terror (BBC2, Monday of last week) . She was lat...

TWO contrasting faiths energise the searing In the Face of Terror (BBC2, Monday of last week). First, Islamic State’s travesty of Islam; second, the overwhelming love for son, daughter, or brother that actuated the hope and longing that Western hostages would be released by their IS captors in Syria.

This love may or may not be an expression of the families’ Christian faith, but such crude contrast between religions is absolutely not the point. Subsequent episodes will focus on their fight for truth and justice after the beheading of the hostages, broadcast to the world by disgusting videos; this first took us into their months of agonising waiting without news.

French and Spanish captives were freed — had ransoms been paid, Islamic prisoners freed? — but the United States and UK governments were adamant that no deals could possibly be struck with a terrorist organisation. The families’ agony was exacerbated by silence from the Foreign Office, which insisted also that the parents not make any private contact with the captors.

Was anything being done at official level? How much was personal value sacrificed on the altar of a larger perspective of diplomacy and international policy? If that is what was going on, then from all we know it was a disaster, anyway.

This challenging moral issue, the collision between individuals and their governments, was presented here unsensationally, allowing the testimonies to speak for themselves.

Extreme national polarisation on the eve of the US presidential election spurred Grayson Perry’s Big American Road Trip (Channel 4, Wednesday of last week). This last of four programmes — filmed pre-Covid — took him to quiet, mainly agricultural Wisconsin, now a crucial swing state. Grayson, riding a staggeringly psychedelic motorbike with matching costume (all, of course, designed by himself), somehow makes his outrageous appearance, and good-humoured, frank conversation, entirely disarming: people open up to him gladly and trustingly.

As they do, we hear jaw-droppingly extreme positions and an absolute refusal to consider anything other than personal convictions. Grayson concludes that opinions are based not on rational discourse, but innate emotional substructure: positions sealed in childhood by cultural identity, and viscerally threatened by opposition — attitudes embraced and brilliantly exploited by President Trump, but, to liberals, incomprehensible. If he was looking at the US, he reckoned that the UK was not far behind: what we desperately need is a contagious growth of empathy.

International empathy saturated Michael Palin: Travels of a lifetime (BBC2, Sunday of last week), his 1988 emulation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days: literally, the first such travel series. Is there any point in broadcasting the best bits of a much-loved classic? In this case, yes: Palin’s contemporary diaries and tapes provide acute perspective to the nostalgia.

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