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Radio review: The Confessional, and The Long View

25 June 2021


Alastair Campbell’s appearance on The Confessional (Radio 4, Sunday) was an exercise in self-justification

Alastair Campbell’s appearance on The Confessional (Radio 4, Sunday) was an exercise in self-justification

“MALADAPTIVE competitiveness.” Well, that’s one way of putting it. Another is: being a cheat. Alastair Campbell’s visit to The Confessional (Radio 4, Sunday) was as much an exercise in self-justification as an unburdening of truly guilty secrets. And enemies of the former New Labour spin doctor will not be surprised that he owned up not to any great crime of state, but to the arguably more pardonable sin of cheating at Trivial Pursuit; and that he had found in his shrink his excuse through the redemptive power of psychiatric jargon.

The format of the show, of which this was the final episode, involves guests’ confessing three guilty secrets to its host, Stephen Mangan. He is an easy man to confess to, though his guests have entered into the process of self-excoriation with differing degrees of intensity. A few weeks ago, Baroness Bakewell told a story relating to her adulterous affair with Harold Pinter which was genuinely unsettling, whereas Mr Campbell’s confession that he is no good about the house sounded like a plea for indulgence by somebody who wants you to think he is a lovable bumbler. It is certainly the case that, post-Dominic Cummings, the special advisers of yore seem a good deal fluffier.

Most telling was Mr Campbell’s third confession: that on a visit to Lambeth Palace he sneaked a selfie wearing the Archbishop’s mitre. Archbishop Welby caught him and gave him an indulgent smile, in reply to which Mr Campbell apparently gave him a sign of absolution. What exactly is going on in this particular psycho-drama — and Mr Campbell’s retelling of it — is another job for that well-paid shrink of his; but it is surely significant that that story is not so secret as to preclude Mr Campbell’s using the photo on his WhatsApp profile.

In some religious cultures, a religious image or statue that made us “experience once again the terrible agony of what’s happened to ancestors” might be regarded as a success. Not so, says the Dean of Manchester, the Very Revd Rogers Govender, when the agony is that inflicted by slavery.

In the course of a half-hour examination of the parallels between Reformation iconoclasm and the contemporary campaign against “tainted” church artefacts, brought to us by The Long View (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), it was hard to see what discernible connection there might be between the two movements: one, the result of a particular doctrinal dispute over the intercessory power of saints, and the other, born of a desire that public images should reflect contemporary secular values.

The show really got going in the final third, as Dean Govender faced off with Calvin Robinson, from Policy Exchange. To the Dean’s plea for an orderly review of church statuary, Mr Robinson replied that the removal of beautiful objects that direct our thoughts to God might, in itself, be considered wicked. And with that the parallel made sense: the disputes, both then and now, are as much to do with aesthetics as politics.

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