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TV review: Stephen Fry: Willem and Frieda — Defying the Nazis, The Mormons are Coming, and Bronson: Fit to be free?

10 March 2023

Channel 4

Stephen Fry: Willem and Frieda — Defying the Nazis (Channel 4, Thursday of last week) examined the story of Willem Arondeus and Frieda Belinfante

Stephen Fry: Willem and Frieda — Defying the Nazis (Channel 4, Thursday of last week) examined the story of Willem Arondeus and Frieda Belinfant...

“TELL the world that homosexuals are not cowards.” In Stephen Fry: Willem and Frieda — Defying the Nazis (Channel 4, Thursday of last week), Willem Arondeus’s final message before his execution by the German occupiers of the Netherlands was amply vindicated by his inspiring life story — that of an artist who, because of his sexuality, which he never hid, was never fully accepted by the Establishment.

The Nazis’ murderous anti-Semitism stirred him, although not Jewish, to extraordinary self-sacrifice. Sending his long-term partner away to safety, he strove to save as many Jews as possible. He formed, with Frieda Belinfante — a leading public figure, the principal cellist of the Concertgebouw Orchestra and also openly gay — a resistance cell of artists. They manufactured fake identity cards to hide Jews’ identity and save them from deportation.

Paradoxically, this mortally dangerous mission transformed Arondeus into a charismatic leader. Betrayed after the group’s destruction of the municipal record office, he was courageously defiant before the judge; awaiting execution, he and 11 companions laughed and sang. Shamefully, after the war, their heroism was — on account of their open homosexuality — airbrushed out of the Netherlands’ celebration of wartime resistance. Only recently, with the creation of Amsterdam’s pink triangle Homomonument, has their story been told. I pray that such truths will shake the convictions of those in our own Church who continue to deny equal access to the sacraments to gay sisters and brothers.

An equality even further from achievement was the subject of The Mormons Are Coming (BBC2, Tuesday of last week). The Chorley Centre — Chorley is home to Europe’s highest concentration of Mormons — trains 800 18- to 25-year-olds annually for a two-year missionary tour. The training looks good (“Don’t be robots: be yourselves”), and the young people are all, of course, lovely — open, friendly, and courageous. They are willing, in pairs or threes, to face the uncaring crowds on British streets and knock on unwelcoming British doors, conspicuously separate from the masses in their suits, white shirts and ties, or extremely sober dresses.

Nowadays, they also employ social media, each Elder or Sister (note the hierarchical gender difference) having a daily target of 50 messages to people whom they have encountered: a rate of follow-up somewhat in excess, I suspect, of most Anglican clergy. But their joyful faith is riven with dark chasms — the stern and absolute moral code, especially around gender and sex, the pressure to accept the doctrine of eternal marriage — which leading some to apostasy. This was far more about works than about grace, it seemed to me.

Bronson: Fit to be free? (Channel 4, Monday and Tuesday of last week) asked whether “Britain’s most violent prisoner” had been sufficiently transformed to be paroled after 48 years in custody. The most shocking revelation was the absolute symbiosis between this attention-seeker and the tabloid press, desperate to feature every excess that he loved to provide, each constantly raising the stakes, all truth obscured and trampled underfoot.

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