THE cathedral was always present. The Salisbury Poisonings (BBC1, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday of last week), a docudrama retelling of the 2018 attempted assassination of the former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, opened with a place-setting shot of the beautiful spire. We glimpsed it again and again as the story unfolded around the city.
It played a part in the drama, its serene pointer to heavenly glory a stark contrast with the sordid realities of human life, mired with violence, hatred, and utter contempt for innocent victims caught up in the crossfire of realpolitik.
The standard fare of fictional spy thrillers received a salutary dose of reality: here, the focus was not on the spies, the assassins, or the spymasters. What mattered was the lives of ordinary people, wrecked by forces beyond their control. It was a story of heroism in the most unlikely places — above all, the Director of Public Health for Wiltshire, played by Anne-Marie Duff.
The triumph of good over evil was, to say the least, partial: lives are still wrecked by the poison; the anger of a city closed down against an invisible deadly force; the slaughter of a young woman just turning her life round after alcoholic addiction. How good is “the best we can do”? Here we saw, powerfully, how the best is not always good enough, and that evil can prevail; but that the virtues of love and duty point to a more profound victory.
If the current pandemic provided an unexpected sharpening to a drama about deadly infection, then anti-slavery protests gave acute topicality to David Olusoga’s A House Through Time (BBC2, Tuesday of last week). The 300-year story of 10 Guinea Street, Bristol, touched on a surprising number of crucial themes: social, political, economic, cultural. It was a brilliant illustration of how one domestic home can exemplify a nation’s history.
Religion properly played its part: there were baptisms and weddings at St Mary Redcliffe; John Wesley preaching across the street; and strong Baptist affiliation. The canker at its heart lay in the buildings’ genesis: its Baroque plasterwork is the fruit of a fortune made by the slave trade. My cavil is that, for a professional historian, Professor Olusoga is curiously surprised by how very different our ancestors’ assumptions and attitudes — and, indeed, the sheer grind and difficulty of their lives — were from our own.
Page Three: The naked truth (Channel 4, Thursday 18 June) celebrated the 50th anniversary of British journalism’s proudest achievement: The Sun’s daily portrayal of young women unclothed above the waist. Focusing on whether the models now feel that they were exploited and abused, it never considered how greatly it coarsened our public life, and how seriously it encouraged the treatment of women merely as titillating objects.