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Review of the Year 2021: Television

17 December 2021


Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (BBC1)

Gemma Arterton as Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (BBC1)

MY 2021 TV reviewing was topped and tailed by nuns based in far-flung places, opening with the hypersexualised drama Black Narcissus (BBC1), whose Sisters sought and failed to create a corner of Surrey in the Himalayas; and ending with the documentary The Electric Car Revolution (BBC2), and the Good Shepherd nuns in Kolwesi, DRC, demonstrating what incarnation and inculturation really meant as they took their struggle against international capitalism’s depredations to the highest level.

Otherwise, the medium was largely untroubled by religion, not counting the Duke of Edinburgh’s Ceremonial Royal Funeral, universally hailed as the kind of worship which everyone really wants from the C of E (although it must be admitted that St George’s, Windsor, can marshal somewhat richer resources of liturgy, music, military bands, etc., than your parish church).

Probably TV’s strongest moral value is to bring the world, moment by moment, into our sitting rooms via its News Bulletins (all channels). The most shocking of all, the assault on the Capitol on 6 January, was so astonishing that it could hardly be credited as really taking place. Four Hours at the Capitol (BBC2) demonstrated in sobering detail that it did; other programmes, for example Trump Takes On the World (BBC2), examined its background and lead-up, while ’Til Kingdom Come: Trump, faith and money (BBC4) focused on the ex-president’s overwhelming support from Jewish settlers and fundamentalist American Evangelicals.

Politics generally received strong and informative coverage, notably Bin Laden: The road to 9/11, on Channel 4, and, with minute-by-minute footage of President Bush’s response as news of that outrage unfolded, 9/11: Inside the President’s War Room (BBC1) — paralleled, in terms of unprecedented contribution by those actually involved, by Blair and Brown: The New Labour revolution (BBC2). The miseries perpetrated by religious strife were examined, in Ireland, by the journalist Peter Taylor in Peter Taylor: Ireland after Partition (BBC2) and in Patrick Kielty: One hundred years of Union (BBC1), and, in India, in India’s Partition: The forgotten story (BBC2).

Silverback FilmsWomen and children draw water from a well in the village of Widou Thiengoly, close to The Great Green Wall project in Senegal, Africa, featured in Sir David Attenborough’s A Perfect Planet (BBC1)

Politics meets stewardship in the year of COP26, with much attention to the natural world — or, rather what, thanks to our depredations, remains of it. Sir David Attenborough’s A Perfect Planet, Attenborough’s Life in Colour, and The Mating Game (all BBC1) invoked (he might be irritated to hear) significant theological resonance. Professor Brain Cox employed God-speak even more consciously in his (this blasphemy apart) magnificent series Universe (BBC2).

Restoring the Earth: The Age of Nature, on BBC4, celebrated how nature can recover and flourish when shielded from humankind’s worst exploitations; and Nature and Us: A history through art (BBC4) told beautifully how central this source of inspiration and reality is.

The pandemic engendered remarkable and moving documentaries, raising research chemists into hitherto unsuspected ranks of public hero: for example, 54 Days: China and the pandemic (BBC2), Why is Covid Killing People of Colour? (BBC1), and Jabbed! Inside Britain’s vaccine triumph (Channel 4).

An impressive list of dramatic documentaries/reconstructions demonstrated how we don’t need external viruses to bring evil into our lives: Max Clifford: The fall of a tabloid king (Channel 4), Football’s Darkest Secret and The Serpent (both BBC1), and The Pembrokeshire Murders (ITV) all told horrific tales of abuse and ruined lives.

Both documentaries and dramas shone spotlights on individuals and groups still marginalised and facing discrimination. Paralympics coverage on Channel 4, backed up by its satirical The Last Leg, moved and inspired me far more than The Tokyo Olympics, on BBC1. The powerful drama It’s a Sin (Channel 4) brought to a whole new generation the 1970s struggles of homosexuals to be accepted, and the horrifying depredations of AIDS.

Finally, a more positive religious note: We Are Lady Parts (Channel 4) is an astonishingly vulgar comedy about a Muslim female punk band, and, in utter contrast, having started with nuns, I end with monks: Brotherhood: The inner life of monks (BBC4) showed the Mount St Bernard community in all its living, dying, and rising.

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