THE chuckle said it all: the flesh is weak, and we can’t do much about it. Andrea Tornielli, representing the Vatican Dicastery for Communications, was answering one of those impossible, headline-trapping, questions: is it possible to stop Catholic priests fathering children? No; it’s human nature. That was good enough for presenter Vincent Doyle: it was, he claimed at the end of his documentary Hidden Children of the Church (R4, Tuesday of last week), a “landmark” admission.
This was, on the whole, an insightful and sensitive piece, including some vivid and compelling anecdotes from those whose fathers had abandoned or denied them for the faith. Doyle has established a support organisation, Coping International, and we heard about the work of Sarah Thomas, who is undertaking doctoral research into the phenomenon. But, where the case for support morphed into the case for action — against the whole institutional policy of celibacy — the programme was weakened. Tornielli’s case gave the only answer he could. Nor did he (and thus, by implication, the Vatican) admit to the figure of 10,000 children, as Doyle and the BBC’s programme summary claim. He could not deny the figure because he simply didn’t know.
As ministers of religion and other sundry entertainers desperately digitise their routines for the newly massed ranks of couch potatoes, they might derive inspiration from Paul Robeson. Back in 1957, his passport withdrawn as a result of his political activities, Robeson booked a small recording studio in New York and sang down the new transatlantic telephone line to an audience of a thousand gathered in St Pancras Hall.
Despite the best efforts of the FBI, Robeson was not a man to be locked down. As his granddaughter, Susan Robeson, recounted in The Essay (R3, Wednesday of last week), Robeson was an irrepressible campaigner, and not past re-inventing his most famous songs to support the cause. “Ol’ Man River”, a classic song of resignation, underwent perhaps the most profound re-appropriation when — at an anti-fascist benefit in the Albert Hall — it was transformed into a song of defiance. “I’m tired of living and scared of dying” became “I must keep fighting until I’m dying.” That the tune manages convincingly to support both sentiments says something about the complex alchemy that combines words and music in song.
It was billed as a Stand-Up Special, a one-off — and, certainly, Geoff Norcott Hates Being Told What To Do (R4, Tuesday of last week) was the first time that I had heard an extended slot given on BBC radio to a defiantly pro-Brexit, right-wing comedian. Norcott labels himself a “right-wing libertarian”; the theme here was the Nanny State. Legislation on booze, sugar, and gambling — these and more got the revisionist treatment, and earned him some genuine laughs along the way.
The strangeness of this programme, however, derived not from the political stance adopted, but from the seeming antiquity of the issues subjected to its critique. We look back at the Brexit debate with something approaching nostalgia, and it’s fair to say that obesity no longer tops the agenda for Public Health England. I would be particularly interested to hear what material the current situation might inspire in a right-wing libertarian comedian, who objects to being infantilised by the State.