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TV review: Castle Howard: Through the seasons, and The Secret Genius of Modern Life

18 November 2022

Channel 4

Castle Howard: Through the seasons (Channel 4, Sundays from 11 November) examines the challenges of caring for a stately home

Castle Howard: Through the seasons (Channel 4, Sundays from 11 November) examines the challenges of caring for a stately home

SOME readers of the Church Times will have felt ruefully familiar with the problems underlying Channel 4’s new series Castle Howard: Through the seasons (Sundays from 11 November). How to pay for essential repairs? Will numbers ever recover from Covid? And the never-ending challenge of responsibility for a beloved and inspiring chunk of our heritage.

The scale and significance might, admittedly, be of a rather different scale, but it’s the same principle. Castle Howard pins its hopes of hugely enhanced visitor throughput (not quite the same as a congregation) on fortuitous associations in the public mind, exhibitions, and events to capitalise on the stately home’s use as a backdrop to today’s wildly popular Bridgerton, and, less significantly, its central part in perhaps TV’s greatest ever litdram, Brideshead Revisited.

It’s a nice moral problem: Castle Howard played an important part in our real history: politics, art, power, all combine in this Baroque palace and its landscape. But what will draw in the crowds is not these vital “facts” — which are by no means of merely antiquarian interest, as, for example, growing concern about how the slave trade undergirded 18th-century society proves — but, instead, works of fiction, essentially entertainment.

Is this a symptom of life today? As reality becomes more and more unbearable, we take refuge in fantasy, whether it’s Bridgerton’s beautifully costumed tosh or Evelyn Waugh’s exploration of the operation of divine grace masking his (and justifying our) nostalgic snobbery. Never think the secular world bears sole blame: consider our cathedrals, whose marketing departments vie against each other to be chosen as the setting for Harry Potter.

Whether worshippers or visitors, nowadays we pay for our pleasures with our plastic bank cards: the subject of the first of Professor Hannah Fry’s new BBC2 series The Secret Genius of Modern Life (Thursdays from 10 November and iPlayer). It is a brilliant piece of technology, bringing extraordinary simplicity to the financial transactions of day-to-day life; but at its heart lies a fundamental flaw — its original sin, if you like. How does the card reader, whatever form it takes, actually know that the person using the card is entitled to do so?

Banks and criminals play an endless game of trying to outwit each other, thinking up more and more sophisticated processes of identification. Professor Fry demolishes the card with infectious glee, showing us what it actually contains, reducing it to fragments, still alarmingly potent. As usage gets simpler and simpler, we don’t really care how it works, until it goes badly wrong and we suffer major fraud. And data companies — with, of course, the admirable aim of being able to confirm our identity more and more securely — store more and more information about us. To whom does our identity belong: us, or them?

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