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Review of the Year 2020: Television

18 December 2020


The Archbishop of Canterbury is interviewed from the kitchen in his flat at Lambeth Palace, on The Andrew Marr Show, on Easter Day, on BBC1. Archbishop Welby had celebrated holy communion with his wife in Lambeth Palace on Radio 4’s Easter Sunday Worship. Another photo in the gallery

The Archbishop of Canterbury is interviewed from the kitchen in his flat at Lambeth Palace, on The Andrew Marr Show, on Easter Day, on BBC1. Archbisho...

IN 2020, TV came home to the Church of England, as the lockdowns and suspension of public worship drove clergy and church members throughout the land to create, for the first time, their very own programmes. Live-streaming, producing YouTube videos, and editing compilations of the faithful recording the elements of worship in their own homes and gardens, represented for most of us a startling venture into new territory, and, like most basic IT skills, required us to persuade our fellowship’s youngest members to show us how to get the flipping thing to work properly.

For some of us, this has been the gateway into the promised land, opening vistas of newly imagined home-based participative faith, beamed directly into sitting rooms and almost allowing us to jettison the outworn encumbrance of maintaining church buildings, etc. For most, it was a jolly useful tool to employ, when we get back to normal patterns of church life, for specific appropriate functions; for others, it was an impertinent nuisance that we couldn’t wait to abandon.

But, whatever our attitude, it has taught us understanding and admiration for the technicalities and skills of filming and producing. How difficult it is to address an unresponsive camera rather than our attentive and interactive congregations! How tricky to frame a shot, focusing on what you want the audience to see, and ensuring that they are not distracted by what you don’t want them to see! How extraordinarily time-consuming it is to splice together and edit film to produce something that flows naturally! And when you succeed in putting together everything just how you want it, the audience is resolutely oblivious of the skills and energy involved, and simply takes it all for granted.

But what professional TV has marked this year of Covid-19? The pandemic gives us greatly enhanced valuation of news bulletins and such extended analysis as Newsnight (BBC2); we even turn to the rolling news channels to try to keep up. Who foresaw that our current national gurus would be epidemiologists? The crisis inspired many documentaries about our new heroes: doctors, nurses, paramedics, research scientists — also, what it is like to contract the disease. Writers, directors, and actors embraced the anti-transmission restrictions with cut-back individual dramas and solo pieces, such as ITV’s Isolation Stories, and a triumphant recreation of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads.

ITVAmanda Abbington (left) as Lyndsey, and Nicôle Lecky has her daughter, Jordan, in Unsaid Stories: Lavender, on ITV, in August, one of four 15-minute dramas, all two-handers, by black authors, produced under lockdown restrictions

Moral weight was generated not just by documentaries responding to the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz (More4), but, in our own day, the Black Lives Matter movement: for example, Unsaid Stories (ITV), and Steve McQueen’s outstanding Small Axe films (BBC1). We were unsettled by striking criminal docudramas, brilliantly recreating horrific episodes in our recent history: The Trial of Christine Keeler (BBC1), the murder of the Bamber family in White Horse Farm (ITV), The Salisbury Poisonings (BBC1); Damilola: The boy next door (Channel 4), and ITV’s extraordinary Des, retelling of Dennis Nilsen’s murders.

Religion gained a little more screen time — not just Ramadan in Lockdown (Channel 4), but, astonishingly, for a fleeting moment, real Sunday Worship on BBC1. Extended coverage of matters of faith were depressingly necessary exposés of shame and scandal: BBC4’s Terror in the Jungle, about the Jonesville massacre, and Bishop Peter Ball’s crimes in Exposed: The Church’s darkest secret (BBC2). Good Omens, BBC2’s stylish dramatisation of Terry Pratchett’s apocalyptic fantasy, developed into a surprisingly moving fable of renunciation and redemption. But perhaps 2020’s strongest TV “shape of things to come” was the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrating the Easter Day eucharist at his kitchen table.

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