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Radio review: Unbelievable? and Our Friends in the North

20 May 2022


Katharine Birbalsingh and the Revd Steve Chalke debate original sin, on the Unbelievable? podcast (released Saturday)

Katharine Birbalsingh and the Revd Steve Chalke debate original sin, on the Unbelievable? podcast (released Saturday)

WHAT have pencil cases got to do with original sin? In a wide-ranging discussion, Premier Christian Radio’s Unbelievable? podcast (released Saturday) took us from one to the other and back again, via Calvin, physics teachers, and Genesis 3. The ambition behind the conversation, hosted by Premier’s Justin Brierley, was to interrogate approaches to education through the lens of theology; and, although the ambition was insufficiently realised, there was much of interest.

Mr Brierley’s guests were Katharine Birbalsingh (Comment, 12 November 2021), whose epithet “Britain’s strictest head-teacher” she does nothing to disavow,and the Revd Steve Chalke, the founder of the Christian charity the Oasis Trust, which runs many schools.

The hope, presumably, was that Ms Birbalsingh would play the martinet and Mr Chalke the big softie; but neither held to the script, not least because the former declared herself uninterested when it came to theological niceties, and was concerned primarily with silence in the corridors.

Mr Chalke’s espousal of a contemporary Pelagianism will no doubt have raised the hackles of Premier devotees. But it is Ms Birbalsingh who, here and in her Twitter posts, courts the greater controversy, with bracing statements about the compassionate deployment of detention and the indulgence of victimhood. What is undeniable is the amount of care that is taken to enact these general sentiments in the muddle of daily life: witness the list of items required for every child’s pencil case.

There is nostalgia, and then there is nostalgia for past nostalgias. The radio adaptation of Peter Flannery’s Our Friends in the North (Radio 4, Thursday of last week) is a fine example of the latter: revisiting a hit TV series from the 1990s, which, in turn, looks back on the politics of the north-east from the early 1960s. The attraction is understandable, in view of the “red wall” breached by the Conservatives, standards in public life a constant concernm and the question “How did we get here?” of evergreen fascination.

Mr Flannery himself called the series a kind of soap opera, although it has its roots in the state-of-the-nation novels of Trollope and the cut-price Proustian sweep of Anthony Powell: imagine A Dance to the Music of Tyne and Wear.

Each of the 45-minute episodes moves us on to another year and another soundtrack. The production bundles us along at high speed, few scenes lasting more than a minute, with little opportunity for characters to develop. The intersecting rise and fall in the fortunes of Nicky and Geordie, Mary and Tosker play out in the manner of counters on a Monopoly board. We are encouraged to ponder in a different way questions of free will, determinism, and original sin, not only as realised in the lives of the main characters, but as expressed through our historically flawed institutions and politics.

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