I SUPPOSE that, internationally speaking, the most iconic of Britain’s religious edifices is neither Westminster Abbey nor St Paul’s Cathedral, but the one featured in Stonehenge: The lost circle revealed (BBC2, Friday). I realise that I am stretching the term “religious” somewhat, but the place clearly relates to convictions beyond human mortality, inciting communal acts of extraordinary energy, commitment, and faith.
This programme suggested that we must now double the effort that was involved. We have long known that the smaller stones, the bluestones, originally stood in an enormous circle surrounding the present monument, later re-erected inside the unique trilithon enclosure; and that they were not local, but originated 150 miles away in Pembrokeshire’s Preseli Hills.
Professor Alice Roberts presented a compelling account of years of research that encompassed the two extremes of most complex laboratory analysis and back-breaking digging in west Wales’s vilest weather, informed by a dogged determination to prove a hunch. The parallels with crime dramas were striking.
It is now a reasonable hypothesis that the stones were first erected in Wales — in a huge 110-metre-diameter circle close to their quarry. Subsequently, this circle was dismantled and the stones were transported to Salisbury Plain, where they were re-erected as a strikingly similar monument.
Why does this matter? It seems to me really important that we acknowledge that our forebears were as full of imagination and creativity as we like to think ourselves; and that their society was organised, collaborative, and peaceful enough to undertake projects requiring years to complete, and engaging entire populations. Surely our determination to reveal their story is both a tribute to them and demonstrates, despite 5300 years’ distance, kinship and common understanding.
All showbiz is, of course, an upstart daughter who long ago took wing and flew the nest of church liturgy; so there was no surprise to find many shared concerns in Imagine: We’ll be back (BBC1, Tuesday 9 February), Alan Yentob’s exploration of the response of performing arts to Covid-19 and lockdown. Stand-up comedy, pop festivals, and mega-live-events’ crews featured alongside ballet and opera; economically, it is utterly disastrous.
This huge industry has few salaries; almost all are fee-based; all have spent their savings. The very survival of iconic venues is uncertain. But there were far more fundamental questions. Should not performers (just like priests) be classed as key workers? Are the arts, like religion, not just agreeable extras to human well-being, but essential to it? Is not shared narrative and story central to life?
Yentob profiled the wonderfully creative ways that performers found to carry on and present their art online, distanced, and isolated — but unanimously agreed them to be very poor substitutes. Performance, like worship, is communal; a live audience is as absolutely essential as the live congregation.