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TV review: Black Narcissus, The Serpent, and The Great

08 January 2021

FX/Miya Mizuno

Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) in Black Narcissus (BBC1, Monday to Wednesday of last week)

Sister Clodagh (Gemma Arterton) in Black Narcissus (BBC1, Monday to Wednesday of last week)

IN TERMS of effective recruitment, I must register serious doubts. Nothing could be more desirable than droves of women seeking to join our Anglican religious orders; but when at last a major TV drama is built around one, it hardly presents a very inviting option.

In Black Narcissus (BBC1, Monday to Wednesday of last week), based on Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel, a group of Sisters set up a convent high in the Himalayas at the request of the native ruler, convinced that the dilapidated palace where his father kept his harem will be the ideal spot to teach the local girls English and lace-making.

Alas, the very walls ooze erotic temptation. Poor Sister Ruth’s obsession with Mr Dean, the general’s agent, grows and grows; our charismatic and ambitious heroine, Sister Clodagh, is increasingly troubled by flashbacks to an adolescent affair whose shame propelled her into the religious life; and her antagonism to Dean masks a growing deep mutual attraction.

Splendidly high-class ingredients are present and correct: exotic location; clash between religions and cultures (might the Buddhist holy man, sitting in immobile contemplation at the very gate of the convent, have access to deeper and older truths? Are the Sisters attempting to create a little corner of Surrey in Nepal rather than engage profoundly with the ancient culture all around them?); faith and psychological turmoil (are the Sisters’ vocations repression, or sublimation, or retreat from truths that they dare not face?).

It should be terrific — especially for us — and yet, somehow, the whole was rather less than the sum of its parts.

The Serpent, BBC1’s latest docudrama series (first episode last Friday, then Sundays), shares several points of contact: exotic Eastern location (here, Thailand) and a search for enlightenment — this time, 1970s hippies; and one of its key characters is even on her way to a monastery. But the overall concept could not offer a stronger contrast.

This is based on the true story of Charles Sobhraj, who drugged and murdered at least a dozen Western backpackers. It is immensely powerful TV — for me, almost physically upsetting — portraying extreme psychological manipulation, as this charismatic psychopath employs friendship and concern to control, imprison, and eventually kill. The corruption of local police and officials is less disgusting than the unconcern and disdain of all the Western embassies: only a heroic Dutch diplomat pursues the case. It is a case study in evil, the serpent befouling a longed-for paradise.

Another young woman sets out to a strange far-off country in The Great (Channel 4, Sunday). But this is the 18th century, and Sophie of Anhalt is on her way to Russia, where she will become Empress Catherine the Great. This is firmly tongue-in-cheek costume drama, and its cheerful and knowing, fast-and-loose approach to historical accuracy is surprisingly effective — far better than taking itself seriously and getting it wrong.

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