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TV review: My Life at Christmas with Sally Phillips and Simon Schama’s History of Now

09 December 2022

BBC/Big Circus Media

The Revd Richard Coles was the first guest on My Life at Christmas with Sally Phillips (BBC1, Sunday)

The Revd Richard Coles was the first guest on My Life at Christmas with Sally Phillips (BBC1, Sunday)

“I DON’T believe that the Bible is literally true. I believe it’s much truer than that.” How magnificently refreshing to hear such words of wisdom — just a few among many — in a TV religious programme. It’s not so many years ago that the BBC was prepared to mark the holy season of Advent (only four weeks, after all: far more acceptable than, say, Lent) with a Sunday-morning act of worship. Now, the closest that it dares to get is My Life at Christmas with Sally Phillips (BBC1, Sunday): three programmes — perhaps no one told the BBC that the season started a week previously — in which the actress interviews a celebrity about their key Christmases.

But, despite my heavy sarcasm, the first the Revd Richard Coles as guest was splendid. He is, of course, a consummate broadcaster: open, honest, articulate. He is exactly the kind of priest that the Church of England needs if it is to become once more the national Church — apart, of course, from those who build their faith on the foundation of the absolute incompatibility of Christianity and homosexuality.

The seasonal element, resolutely fostered by the production team with festive baubles and set-dressing, was, frankly, secondary to Fr Coles’s account of working with AIDS victims, of political protest, and of his jealousy of the Communards’ lead singer while he was relegated to keyboard (he’d been head chorister, for heaven’s sake).

It was splendid to see the star part accorded to St Alban’s, Holborn, where he recounted his moment of conversion to faith; and splendid that he gave proper weight to the totality of Anglo-Catholic worship — the liturgy, the music, the incense — that for him, as for countless others, had reinforced, not stifled, the call of God. Splendid, even, that twice the interview had to move to another location because a service was about to take place. Who would have expected, nowadays, that worship would take precedence over TV filming?

The pain and grief of the death of Fr Coles’s civil partner’s death from alcoholism-related disease (Features, 9 April 2021) did not destroy the blissful memories of the Christmases that they had enjoyed together. And the best part of Christmas for him? As for, I suspect, many clergy, the moment at midnight mass of placing the Bambino in the crib: “the totally unexpected arrival of God. . . Christmas enables us to be the best we can be.” I hope that many were watching and taking note.

In Simon Schama’s History of Now (three parts from 27 November, BBC2, Sundays), the historian recounts his personal witnessing of epochal post-war moments of change in Europe and the United States, and how artists and writers have been at the forefront of revolution, and transforming society. But he is fuelled by anger and despair: the great advances in liberty, democracy, and equality are now threatened by ruthless totalitarianism, violence, and war. In this Advent alarm call, the horsemen of the Apocalypse ride abroad unhindered.

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