herald

Monday 20 August 2018

Playing hide and seek with God

Bishop Undercover RTE1, Sunday Britain's Got Talent TV3/ITV, Saturday Titanic TV3/ITV, Sunday Upstairs Downstairs BBC1, Sunday

You're off the case Bishop Undercover!" were the words I was hoping to hear during the two-parter, Bishop Undercover.

"You broke regulations!" a crusty old archbishop could shout, after Bishop Undercover, dressed as a street-pimp, did a forward roll into a fancy society shindig firing a machine gun (or at least holy water from a water-gun). "Hand over your crozier!"

But Bishop Undercover isn't a Hollywood movie. It's a well-meaning documentary unnecessarily influenced by The Secret Millionaire. Instead of a rich person going anonymously into communities to find recipients for philanthropy, pleasant, softly spoken Church of Ireland Bishop Trevor Williams goes anonymously into the community to learn what ordinary people feel about religion.



conceit

The problem with this conceit is that, these days, people don't respond with quite the same awe to undercover bishops as they do to secret millionaires. So in this week's episode when he reveals his true identity the responses amount to polite puzzlement.

"Oh very nice, lovely!" said one meals-on-wheels volunteer, as though he'd told her he was an accountant or a pharmacist. His anonymity in a post-Christian society felt beside the point and a little forced.

The most interesting bits were when the slightly discomfited Bishop encountered some very different Christian milieus -- hip Christian youth workers and a flourishing extroverted Pentecostal church -- without any disguise at all.

The over-cover Pope of Pop (Simon Cowell) returned on Saturday's Britain's Got Talent alongside three stooges (Holden, Dixon and Walliams) to lead the mob in a spot of dream-crushing.

As we learned from Susan Boyle, it's wrong to hector someone who subsequently turns out to have a nice voice (like this week's Jonathan Antoine), so the main dynamic is insecurity. "Are we bullying the right people?" the audience wonder, as they alternate mocking laughter with cathartic weeping.

Sometimes they're so confused that the sound of massed cheering can be heard when the audience faces behind the judges look completely impassive. A cynic would say that this is the product of manipulative editing. I think, however, it's because these people are highly talented ventriloquists.

Downton Abbey scribe Julian Fellowes is also a ventriloquist, but the past is his doll and reactionary Tory nostalgia is his "gottle of geer". I was curious what he'd do with the Titanic story. Well, in the first episode, he's basically rewritten Downton Abbey on a boat and added an outrageous new character called Mr Iceberg.



radical

Despite being an iceberg, Mr Iceberg is great. He's a radical who refuses to differentiate between aristocrats (saints!), brash Americans (colonials!), amoral bohemians (foreigners!), faithful retainers (with secrets!) and an uppity Irish woman who rudely insists that colonialism is bad (Maria Doyle Kennedy!).

Mr Iceberg scandalises the snooty countess with his uncouth nouveau-riche ways (using the wrong cutlery, trying to drown everybody). But this being a Fellowes' script, I expect the countess's bolshie suffragette daughter (Perdita Weeks) to be Mrs Iceberg before long.

Each episode will revisit the disaster from different character perspectives and, thus far, it's dull. Hopefully, next week will be the exciting tale of a daredevil sea-captain with a simple dream: to jump over an iceberg in a passenger ship.

BBC's Upstairs Downstairs is much better than Downton Abbey or 'Downton on Sea' (Titanic), because the writers clearly see a person's class as accident of birth and not triumph of breeding.

In the final episode, servants are torn between resentment and duty, aristocrats between entitlement and guilt, as they betray spouses, employers and nations on the eve of WWII. Upstairs Downstairs is the bittersweet story of flesh and blood people in a rigid system. Titanic's (or Iceberg Undercover's) best character is an iceberg.

Bishop Undercover HHIII

Britain's Got Talent HIIII

Titanic HHIII

Upstairs Downstairs HHHHI

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