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TV review: The Sixth Commandment, Earth, and A Year on Planet Earth

28 July 2023

BBC/Wild Mercury/Amanda Searle

Timothy Spall plays Peter Farquhar in The Sixth Commandment (BBC1, from Monday 17 July)

Timothy Spall plays Peter Farquhar in The Sixth Commandment (BBC1, from Monday 17 July)

TELEVISION portrayals of evil people are usually signalled by aggression and violence, by obvious hatred and criminality. But none has been more chilling than the villain of the four-part The Sixth Commandment (BBC1, from Monday 17 July). This dramatisation of the horrific 2015 murder of Peter Farquhar and the death of Ann Moore-Martin (News, 25 October 2019) contained incorrect details, no doubt; but the central portrayal of Ben Field felt disturbingly close to life — a life in which the Church of England was central.

Field seemed the ideal caring, faithful Christian, becoming a deputy churchwarden and would-be ordinand. He was the kind of eager, committed, bright young person whom we all long to welcome into our congregations — but in fact he was a ruthless, manipulative murderer, playing a long game to get his hands on the wealth of the vulnerable and elderly.

His crimes were not solely animated by avarice: he clearly derived obscene pleasure from the psychological and physical pain that he inflicted on his victims, as he poisoned and tormented them to death, and from fooling everyone around him. Among an outstandingly brilliant cast, Timothy Spall played Farquhar with heartbreaking conviction. Charismatic, a greatly loved schoolmaster and author, a pillar of his church, he condemned himself to loneliness through his conviction that his homosexuality — never acted on — was anathema to God.

For handsome, persuasive Field, he was easy prey. I see Farquhar as victim to a terrible perversion of Christian doctrine: encouraged to hate himself, he never formed the intimate loving relationships that would have offered security against his tormentor’s guile. Like a few other recent dramas, this one portrays Christianity respectfully and seriously. Negatively, the story endorses suspicion of the best-seeming people; positively, it encourages us to offer deeper commitment to the lonely and vulnerable.

An encompassing philosophy underpins Earth (BBC2, from Monday 17 July). Chris Packham presents five crucial episodes from our planet’s story, each of which is causing almost total annihilation. His theme is that fatal catastrophe is, in fact, the necessary portal to new life — as much, of course, a theological as a scientific truism.

Animated by fantastic CGI reconstructions, Packham popularises research findings and accepted hypotheses, starting with the Permian mass extinction, 252 million years ago. Two million years of volcanic eruption killed 96 per cent of marine organisms, surely putting the lid on God’s experiment of life on earth. Yet, after 18 million years, a two-million-year deluge of rain started everything up again, in a different direction. Back, perhaps, to the divine drawing-board?

In A Year on Planet Earth (ITV1, Sundays from 9 July), Stephen Fry talks us through spectacular and gorgeous wildlife footage — but he fails to persuade, sounding by turns portentous or arch. Just switch off the sound.

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