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TV Review: State of Happiness, How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears, and Normal People

08 May 2020

BBC/NRK_Maipo Film

State of Happiness is on BBC 4

State of Happiness is on BBC 4

WHAT would any pious Christian mother do when her only daughter knocks on the door late on Christ­mas Eve, pleading for sanc­tuary as she flees with her new­born­­ baby from an unbearable forced marriage? Why, turn her away to freeze and bolt the door, of course; for we are in the world of TV drama, where all followers of Christ are known to be bitter and judgemental hypocrites.

State of Happiness, BBC4’s latest Norwegian Saturday-evening series, is mostly far less clichéd than this: cleverly, it has a setting that seems wildly exotic and yet is not only close to home, but inextricably bound up with our own recent eco­nomic and social story.

The fishing industry in Stavanger is close to collapse, and the fabled regeneration offered by the striking of oil by offshore rigs has failed to materialise. Only one potential well remains: will it deliver the black gold? Of course it does! The flare is lit just as poor Toril is sent out into the cold: the light that has come into the world has, nowadays, nothing to do with Bethlehem. How will this newfound wealth transform a strug­gl­­­ing community? Do the oil­men from the United States come as saviours or wreckers?

A previous generation of Amer­i­can prospectors cropped up in How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears (BBC4, Saturday). The nat­ural abundance of the Rocky Moun­tains was first exploited by the “moun­tain men” trekking down from Canada in pursuit of beavers to make the tall hats demanded by Western fashion; but that despolia­tion was as nothing compared with the havoc wrought by the great Californian gold rush of 1849. Scrip­ture proved that God created the natural world for humankind’s en­­richment; Christians were mani­festly ordained to subdue and extir­pate the pagan natives. Mears pushes us towards a very different scenario for our species: of honouring and living in partnership with nature — aims that are entirely consonant, of course, with true discipleship.

Normal People (BBC1, Mondays) is a sensitive televising of Sally Rooney’s novel exploring the joys and pains of first love. Marianne’s family are wealthy and high-achieving, and yet home is frigid and distant. Her intelligence and abrasive manner bring unpop­ularity. She loves Connell, the son of her mother’s cleaner: a taci­turn, hand­some sports hero who is also clever and hard-working. They hide their passion away from the cheapening gaze that surrounds them.

Successive waves of heartbreaks and reconciliations follow. Everyone agrees that this is a masterpiece: acute and movingly accurate. For me, the discovery of what young people get up to nowadays is very surprising. For a serious-minded young woman to say, three minutes after her first-ever kiss, “Shall we take our clothes off now?” is not exactly how I (very dimly) remem­­ber it.

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