RELIGIOUS strife is central to the current Sunday-night costume blockbuster on BBC1, A Suitable Boy. India, in 1951, is only just post-independence and post-partition: the pressures on 19-year-old Lata to get married bring to the surface all the tensions (played out on the streets in actual bloodshed) between Hindus and Muslims; between those who long for integration and those who wish to maintain rigid separation; those who wish for a liberal and just society and those who want to perpetuate their privilege and power; those who want rapid wholesale Westernisation and those fighting for India’s ancient culture.
Throw into the mix sheer snobbery, ambition, vanity, and the universal parent-child divide, and A Suitable Boy seethes with Tolstoyan drama, tragedy, and comedy — oh, and I must not forget romantic love and sexual passion. The vast landscape of families, characters (all largely upper-class), and themes are marshalled into compelling TV.
The British Academy Television Awards (BBC1, Friday) offered an illuminating mirror to lockdown church life. The presenter, Richard Ayoade, enjoyed a set as lavish as on any previous occasion — but in an empty studio. There was no expectant audience to whip up with mounting tension and excitement, and there were no gales of laughter at the rapier-like wit: it was just like the experience of presenting online worship, or chairing PCC meetings, on Zoom. Everyone did their best with distance-filmed contributions, the British default mode of self-deprecating humour particularly appropriate to the occasion. I found it all rather moving.
The whole programme screamed “baptism” — but the sacrament was mentioned only once, in passing. Despite this central lapse, Wild Swimming with Alice Roberts (BBC4, Wednesday 22 July) was splendid. Inspired by the pioneer Roger Deacon, our favourite palaeoanthropologist went on a pilgrimage through a more ancient Britain defined not by roads, but by waterways: rivers, lakes, the sea. The vital response to water, she sought to persuade us, was to get into it.
Her engagement developed apace: first, gingerly, wet-suited, then, more boldly, swimming-costumed, and, finally, in a remote Lake District tarn (very discreetly filmed), as nature intended. She explored how our bodies react to cold water, how the initial biting cold is replaced, as the sensors in our skin shut down, with overwhelming exhilaration, of being alive in a completely new way. (I haven’t the slightest intention of trying it myself.)
The mythic process of being enveloped in the waters of death, of immersing ourselves in a medium strange and alarming — and yet, given our original suspension in the waters of the womb, distantly familiar — then re-emerging re-born, renewed, made afresh is precisely how we explain (well, I do) the trajectory of baptism.
We had to make that link ourselves; for her, wild swimming is a radical way of rediscovering how we are part of the natural world. It’s a repeat of an old programme, but I completely missed it the first time it was shown, and it feels quite of the moment.