Paul Arnold, the coordinator of the Church and Media Network (MediaNet), kindly invited me to write a post this week to point to how Wilderness engages with media issues. So here is the result:
When Jeremy Paxman gave his MacTaggart lecture at the 2007 Edinburgh International Television Festival, he actually created his own headlines. After a spate of scandals at the time, he described how his employer, the BBC, had been left with “a catastrophic, collective loss of nerve,” with the bigger question of whether the corporation “itself has a future.” Those comments are even more relevant today, with many seeking to exploit its insecurity. The precariousness is indicated by the fact that big celebrity guns have been marshalled to speak out in its defence. Read more
Some readers will know that my current obsessions are conspiracies and suspicions. One of these days, these may coalesce into something substantial. But that feels a long way off at the moment. Ho hum. But for now, if you want some brilliant ripostes to those who suck up every conspiracy theory going, then my suggestions are twofold:
- Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest David Aaronovitch’s superb Voodoo Histories, reviewed here some months back.
- Watch, chuckle and take very seriously indeed these little gems from the wondrous archive of Mitchell & Webb.
It’s been a germ of an idea for ages, but at last it’s finally come about. Q now has a podcast. Hurrah. I can just sense the infectious excitement simply oozing throughout cyberspace. But there are loads of fascinating people out there: hearing how a few live out their lives and passions ought to be fun. Doncha think?
Well, whatever you feel about the prospect of Q podcasts in general, the inaugural episode in particular is definitely exciting because last week, I had the chance to record a conversation with the very talented and thought-provoking Dutch filmmaker, Jaap van Heusden. Here is the link on iTunes (or if you don’t have that, direct through Jellycast) Read more
Yes, I realise this is rather too late for helping with your Christmas shopping. But think of it as an aid to early preparations for the next one. Following up Q’s astronomically popular board games review back in July 2011, we’ve taken on board (geddit?) a number of other TV alternatives in our repertoire and felt that an update was definitely required. So here it is: 11 games of varying degrees of difficulty, intensity and delight. Trying to grade them has caused not a little debate around the kitchen table, but it was clear that three games in particular came out on top in chez Meynell: FORBIDDEN ISLAND, PUERTO RICO and TICKET TO RIDE (Asia Maps edition).
But there are definitely other options for those who don’t like their games so overly complex or involved. Have fun. Read more
We had a bit of an experiment on Sunday night at All Souls. Instead of the normal evening service, we had a condensed corporate time for around half an hour, and then split into 3 seminars in different venues. Prof John Wyatt did one on Truth in the Brave New World of medical ethics, Nola Leach of CARE did one on Truth in the Public Square and I did one on popculture. The whole thing worked really well and it seemed refreshing to do this sort of thing every now and then. Read more
I’d guess that only the most hardened petrol-heads and urbanites will fail to be moved to awestruck wonder by episodes in the BBC’s latest natural world epic, FROZEN PLANET. Quite apart from the stunning (ant)arctic panoramas, there are the focused dramas of a pack of killer whales harassing and (hours later) overwhelming a minke whale. Or comic moments, like the waddling penguins slipping on the ice, or the traffic jam of two narwhal clusters, equipped with their unicorn-like tusks and having to negotiate a head on meeting in a narrow, one-way only ice channel. Read more
It’s not every day that one gets to sit around the same table as representatives of Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Christian and Humanist networks with the chance to pick brains and question of the most senior leaders of the BBC. But that is exactly what happened today, as I’d been invited to attend a small group that meets twice a year on Religion and Belief in broadcasting. I certainly felt both out of my depth and a fish out of water (if that’s possible) – still, it was very interesting indeed (not least because the BBC is our next door neighbour) and a privilege to be present. Read more
I was in fear and trembling before watching this movie. Not because of any potential hide-behind-the-sofa moments – but because I so wanted the film to succeed, but feared it would fail spectacularly. For the BBC series with Alec Guinness as George Smiley is one that i’ve watched countless times. And it never ceases to surprise and thrill. Even though cinematically the look and feel seems very dated, the production doesn’t age. So when I heard about the new film, my heart groaned slightly. But fortunately, I really shouldn’t have worried. This film is a triumph. Read more
I said last week that I was offering the final instalment of Whitehall Wisdom. Well, I subsequently realised that I had omitted perhaps the most pertinent of the lot – the tangled web that has been weaved in the name of Church and State relations. This is primarily the result of that perfect CofE primer, the episode entitled The Bishop’s Gambit. Read more
One of the acute difficulties of British etiquette is the profound problem of meaning – there can be a huge disparity between the literal/surface meaning of words and the actual intended meaning as all visitors to these shores find to their confusion and even peril. For those wanting a general introduction to the phenomenon, you can do a lot worse than checking this excellent EU translation guide. Read more
It is a truism to say that the media is influential in politics. But there is no doubting that its power to mesmerize and acclimatize contributed to Obama’s election. Having focused yesterday on the way in which Obama both innately and deliberately sought to build bridges across community divides and with historical landmarks (as described in David Remnick’s remarkable book The Bridge), I want to pick up on how he was able to surf the media’s wave all the way into Pennsylvania Avenue. Read more
Here are some further lessons from Yes Prime Minister. This time, mainly from Sir Humphrey, on the art of managing your department minister, however senior he or she might be. Read more
Having been dreaming, scheming and working on this little project for months with a couple of friends (the illustrious Tim Plyming and the multi-talented radio producer John Sugar), it is with great excitement that we can now announce the release of this new 30 minute radio-documentary style programme: Read more
This week we follow Bernard as he comes to terms with some of the realities of political life, usually as a result of the instructions from his mentor and overlord, Sir Humphrey…
I’ve just found this in my drafts box having obviously never posted it. So better late than never…
Having been a long-term, obsessive devotee of Yes (Prime) Minister, I enjoyed picking up this little dip-in fan’s miscellany about the series, not least because of the Jay & Lynn introduction. Here are a few treats:
The fruits of authenticity
[The] quest for authenticity produced unexpected benefits. We discovered that truth was not just stranger than fiction, it was also funnier. We often found that if an episode wasn’t really working, the answer was to go back to our expert advisors and probe a bit further; time and again this would produce the idea that we needed.
There were three plot ideas in particular that we hit on in this way. There was a crisis meeting in the minister’s sleeping compartment in the overnight train to the party conference. There was the announcement on television of a Christmas benefit for pensioners after the civil service had refused on the grounds of administrative impossibility, and there was the teetotal reception in an Islamic country where the UK delegation set up an emergency communications tent full of bottles of Scotch to top up the chaste orange juice supplied by their hosts. They all happened, but we would never have thought of them ourselves. (p3) Read more
Apparently, the BBC has received more positive feedback comments about the recent 4-part Nativity than any other broadcast in 2010.
And I’m not surprised at all. It was the best thing on at Christmas – and in fact all year. For the most surprising reasons.
If you’ve not listened to the extended interview with creator Tony Jordan, then you must – I did before watching any of the episodes and it certainly brought to life what he was seeking to do. (Alternatively, check out this interview in the Telegraph). What started out as a mickey-take evolved into the most theologically profound, provocative and moving piece of television I have seen in years. This was because he found himself swept up by the sheer drama of the narrative of the greatest story ever told. And he asked a dramatist’s (not a theologian’s, apologist’s or antagonist’s) questions of this all too familiar story. But he did it without iconoclasm or revisionism – he simply did it with a reverent curiosity.
As he says in the interview, it was hard to come up with 2 hours of television based on just a few lines of gospels’ text. Imagination was essential. But what was so stunning was that it never felt contrived. And I found myself reflecting on the theological significance of the drama all the more as the result.
Mary, as played by the wonderful Tatiana Maslany, is delightful, warm and loveable but never saccharine or goody-two-shoes. But most significantly, she’s just a girl. A teenager. And when Gabriel announces to her what God has in store for her, it’s hard not to imagine that God’s favour on her hardly seems a blessing to begin with.
Gabriel is in tears as he announces this news to her. Both, presumably, out of joy at what God is doing, but also deep sympathy at the great cost this will bring to Mary. For what Jordan’s screenplay does so powerfully is to show how isolated and vulnerable she was. A pregnant, unmarried but betrothed girl – whom nobody could possibly believe when she says she’s pregnant… by God. It’s highly plausible she’d be mobbed in the street as a whore. It’s highly plausible she’d be banned from Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem (it had never occurred to me before to ask why Joseph couldn’t find a room in his family town – Jordan’s speculation makes perfect sense). It’s highly plausible that the religious bigwigs in the Nazareth synagogue would shun her.
And worst of all, she has the agony of a man she has grown to love (despite being an arranged marriage) unable to believe her. Why should he believe her, after all? It is extraordinary that almost the first words we hear her say in the first episode is ‘Joseph, please don’t hate me‘. This is not highfalutin Authorised version language, thank goodness – but it is real, mundane, recognisable. People talk like this. Which is one reason this worked.
Her suffering will not cease of course. The birth of this child, Jesus, as well as the complexities of raising a family with all Jesus’ brothers and sisters, long after being widowed, will create all kinds of heartache – not to mention the agony of seeing Jesus executed a criminal’s death. How extraordinary that God should choose to use what appears the worst to do the greatest. For it seems that Mary had to become pregnant before her marriage – otherwise everyone would have immediately assumed it was Joseph’s. In God’s strange purposes it had to happen like this. For Mary to be most favoured by God meant having to endure the most terrible anguish. Which is a reflection of the suffering her son himself would endure. The path to glory truly is marked by pain.
Joseph’s Agony of Confusion
In many ways, though, the epicentre of The Nativity’s narrative arc is Joseph. He is the one who starts with an arranged marriage, albeit one that he seems keen to have. He is enchanted by Mary – their love is touching and not too Mills&Boon-ish – so his shock, disappointment and anger when she returns from Elizabeth are total. We have to wait for all four episodes to find out how he comes to terms with it all – we know of course that he will, but such is the dramatist’s art that we are nevertheless on the edge of our seats. Jordan speculates that Joseph is still in two minds even after his dream from Gabriel – perhaps a speculation too far. But it’s not a problem. For it merely conveys how counter-intuitive it all was. And he seems to need every nudge in the book to accept this really is a divine plan.
It is not until all the pieces of the puzzle all fall into place at the end that he can join hands with his wife-to-be in the wonder of it all. It is a breathtaking moment, one that we’ve been yearning for. But this creative tension is important and entirely legitimate. For it brilliantly conveys how hard it was for Joseph to go through with the marriage, precisely because he was a righteous man (cf Matthew 1:18-20).
The Power of A Divine Plan
The first time we see the planets moving (and stunningly beautiful it all is), with a sound effect rather resembling heavy machinery manoeuvring in a steelworks, it’s rather a shock. But this motif serves to illustrate the extraordinary forces at work – and consequently the juxtaposition of planets, stars, wise-men and shepherds converging on a cowshed seems all the more remarkable. It’s striking to see how the wise-men leave Babylon months before the child is born, and perhaps even before his conception has occurred – which reinforces the point still further. So how extraordinary to have such creative expertise serving a theological purpose.
And then when the magi appear, their language (in the mouth of Wycliffe himself!) is pure Johannine Christology. For while John doesn’t have a birth narrative, his is the most extensive and profound theological reflection on the incarnation. And to have these words spoken to a newborn in a cowshed made it even more strange. And strangeness is surely precisely what we need to recover, for all the Christmas schmaltz of ‘snow falling on snow’.
For by using a powerful creative imagination within the bounds of being thoroughly faithful to the structure, theology and essence of the texts, Jordan has made something that goes far beyond the likes of Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth or the Jesus Film. He has made the people and world into which God’s son come thoroughly recognisable and normal – which in turn has made the miracle of the Incarnation seem far more wonderful and… well… miraculous.
Who’d have thought it on BBC 1 prime time?