THE origin story is a tricky genre. In short, the intrinsic challenge is: we all know where the story is going to end up. How, then, to make the inevitable seem interesting, even spontaneous? For all its merits, Anna Linstrum’s contribution to Drama on 4: Samaritan Number One (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) failed the test. When a young Anglican priest, the Revd Chad Varah, having witnessed the tragedy of teenage girl taking her own life, utters the imperishable line, “What if there was some kind of emergency service . . . a hotline?” we the audience have been waiting with increasing exasperation for the characters to catch us up.
Perhaps the clunkiness was intended comically; for this account of Varah’s early career could never be accused of being po-faced. Our hero is played by Reece Shearsmith, of the TV comedy The League of Gentlemen, and the storyline focuses on his ministry as a sex educator. There is no dearth of opportunity for dirty-vicar jokes, although Linstrum manages deftly the shifts from the prurient chortle to the cry of anguish, and has her characters say something vaguely meaningful about the interconnectedness of love, sex, piety, and devotion. Others better informed than I can comment on how balanced an account of Varah’s preoccupations this represents.
The World Service’s Heart and Soul strand continues courageously to fill some of that ever-deepening hole in the BBC’s religious offering whose importance for our broader political education was clear from the subject of last Friday’s programme. The Falun Gong, whose advocates one might see protesting and proselytising outside embassies around the world, is thought to represent the largest organised opposition to the Chinese government inside or outside of the country. The faith was deemed an evil cult and banned from mainland China at the beginning of the century, after demonstrations against state intervention. Now, under closer scrutiny from Beijing, disciples in Hong Kong have also been silenced; so the BBC’s reporter Danny Vincent visited Taiwan to find out more about its teachings.
While it claims affiliation with Buddhism, Falun Gong does, indeed, have cultic elements, not least in its devotion to the founder, Li Hongzhi, whom many regard as a living god. We met a Mr Wong, who has decided to treat his Hepatitis B with prayer rather than medicine, and talked of ancestors from another planet. These are not the obvious warriors for a new politics in China, but they are among the most visible and resolute.
The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s penchant for sleeping in a coffin is often quoted as a demonstration of his morbid piety. Less well known is that he staged a rehearsal for his own funeral, an event imagined for us by the ensemble La Tempête, and broadcast on The Early Music Show (Radio 3, Sunday). It was a terrific programme, even if, by including Arabic and Sephardic tunes, it left me unconvinced by this projection of modern, pluralist ideals of monarchy on to a 16th-century potentate.