Friday, 25 September 2015

Are TV dramatists finally learning to love vicars?

The two things make ITV’s new three-part horror/crime drama Midwinter of the Spirit stand out and suggest it might be worth pursuing are the presence of the compelling actress Anna Maxwell Martin in the lead role, and the fact that she’s playing Merrily Watkins, a strangely normal Church of England vicar. Nothing surprising about a priest featuring in a drama, of course, but what makes this portrayal so surprising is that this priest isn’t demented, vicious, sexually perverted, comically incompetent, and appears - bizarrely - to believe in God!

Until quite recently, a clergyman only had to appear in the background of a scene in a modern crime drama for the audience to assume that he or she was the perpetrator of whatever sordid frightfulness had been unfolding. If they were too minor a character to be the criminal, they were either a symbol of reactionary irrationality and prejudice or a comic turn based on the scriptwriter’s cosy childhood memories of Derek Nimmo in All Gas & Gaiters or Dawn French in Vicar of Dibley. Strangely, what the  crime drama vicar never turned out to be was a swivel-eyed Guardian-reading left-winger, ignoring the spiritual needs of his parishioners in favour of the opportunities for moral preening afforded by strident political activism - a more prevalent type in the modern church, I’m sure, than kiddie fiddlers, mass murderers or (God forbid!) conservatives.

Still, the tide of rampant anti-clericalism in TV-land seems to be receding. For instance, since 2013 the BBC has broadcast several series of Father Brown, featuring Mark “I’ll Get Me Coat” Williams as the crime-solving Catholic priest. It’s undemanding afternoon TV fare, and won’t be winning a slew of BAFTAs, but - aside from the occasional anachronism (the stories have been set in the early 1950s, but some of the social attitudes are distinctly 21st century) - the fact that it contains more sex than the original, and that at least half of the episodes are newly-minted stories, it doesn’t stray too far from the spiritual atmosphere of Chesterton’s original short stories (of which, in any case, I am not a huge fan). Father Brown is a bit of a rebel, of course, but the attitude to the Catholic Church is largely sympathetic - although obviously not as sympathetic as Chesterton’s! (I wonder if the BBC has received many complaints from proselytising atheists.)

ITV's cosy crime series, Grantchester, which aired last year and is due to return for a second series, also featured a crime-detecting cleric hero in the form of young Anglican vicar Sidney Chambers, a former soldier. It's a bit of a snoozefest, thanks partly to an uncertain central performance by blond heartthrob James Norton, who appears to be all the rage at the moment (most recently, I'm informed, as unfortunate Clifford Chatterley in Lady Chatterley's Lover). It's a dull, virtue-signalling series, but the vicar (troubled by his war-time experiences, inevitably) is treated as a serious and admirable figure.

Then there was Rev, the BBC comedy series featuring Tom Hollander as Adam Smallbone, a vicar transplanted from rural Suffolk to an inner city parish (poor beggar). There was precious little spiritual enlightenment on display, but it at least had the merit of accurately portraying Anglican clergymen in "deprived" areas as little more than social workers ministering to those on society’s margins, thus reflecting the depressing leftward direction in which the Church of Corbyn has been travelling for the past half century as it desperately tries to make itself “relevant” by aligning itself with the non-Blairite wing of the Labour Party and utterly mis-portraying Jesus as a communist revolutionary. Does it ever occurs to Church leaders that the pews have been emptying for decades largely because of their rejection of spiritual teaching in favour of socialist materialism - do they really believe that the spiritual health of the poor would be automatically improved if they were given more of other people’s money or had access to more banks? Is the Church really that spiritually and intellectually impoverished? (It isn’t in our neck of the woods, by the way - being moderately well off isn't a crime in our local church - not yet, anyway.)

Finally, there was the Reverend Paul Coats, the priest in ITV's Broadchurch. Inevitably, he had “issues” (all TV clergyfolk are essentially troubled): he was a recovering alcoholic and there was some jiggery-pokery with a female parishioner. But the real surprise was that he turned out not to be the murderer, and when the actual murderer changed his plea to “not guilty”, the priest, who had been visiting him regularly in prison, took a distinctly and pleasingly Old Testament approach to the swine, plotting with his parishioners to drive the killer out of town (although, I’ll admit, I was rather hoping they’d throw him off a cliff). In a way, it was a surprise that the Church was involved in any way in  the story - and an even greater surprise that it was sympathetically portrayed as an important part of the troubled village’s social fabric.

So are TV dramatists learning not to despise the church? And if so, is it because the church has become so left-wing, so wedded to the Social Gospel (i.e. the belief that the church’s primary duty is to rid the world of social ills rather than minister to the spiritual well-being of individuals) that - apart from all that mumbo-jumbo about God and Jesus dying for our sins - its views are now more in line with socialist media types? I don’t know, but - whatever the cause - the reasonable, almost respectful depiction of the clergy in some recent programmes is a welcome trend.

I suspect Laurence Fox's Sergeant (now Detective Inspector) Hathaway in the long-running ITV series Lewis paved the way for much of this. Hathaway studied theology and entered a seminary, which, as a result of doubts, he abandoned in order to become a policeman. The character's religious faith - or lack of it - is at the heart of Fox's performance, and is a constant theme, lending the drama a moral dimension which sets it apart from its competitors, as does its willingness to address religion as an important issue. I'm delighted they're bringing it back: partly because his actions and attitudes are heavily informed by Christianity, Hathaway is undoubtedly the most interesting detective on TV.

As for Midwinter of the Spirit, our book group discussed the Phil Rickman novel on which it’s based two years’ ago. I’m sorry to report that I found it almost unreadable. It seemed interminable, and not well written (one of the group members read out a particularly terrible passage to general hilarity). While not impressed by the execution, I was impressed with the writer’s strategy of melding aspects of the traditional cosy semi-rural English detective story with traditional horror themes - Midsomer Murders meets The Exorcist. And I applaud him for choosing a believable female vicar as the heroine of his tale (tales - it’s a series), and, albeit in the context of some ripe horror hokum, suggesting that the church has a role to play in battling evil on the spiritual as well as the physical plane.

I wonder when we'll see the first crime series featuring a crime-fighting imam in the lead role.

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