Elizabeth I’s Battle for God’s Music, and The Great


WHO makes the news? It’s a good question, dividing us into two camps: either lofty objectivists, or cynical subjectivites — paralleling the contrast between stern biblical fundamentalists and wishy-washy compromising relativists.

For the former, the news is determined by the unfolding events themselves, and is merely a matter of conveying the facts as clearly as possible; the latter acknowlege multiple layers of fallible human decision-making and prioritising: what story matters most? What’s the best angle on it? How do I keep the audience interested? And, in actual newsrooms — such as the Australian example compellingly depicted in The Newsreader (BBC2, six episodes from 24 July, and iPlayer) — by far the greatest element is the personalities of those involved; and by personalities I mean egos.

The power struggle between the two presenters, mature old-school Geoff, barely keeping his prejudices in check, and refusing to believe the evidence of how much viewers prefer Helen, his younger, emotional female colleague, parallels every walk of life. Add to the mix eager puppyish Dale, waiting in the wings while nerdishly collecting every nugget of background information illuminating the issues of the day, and we have a clearly Oedipal scenario, as the youth prepares to dispatch his father and bed his mother.

It is witty, sharply drawn, and exudes period charm (it’s 1986; so there’s no internet or mobile phone), and each episode gains piquancy by being built around, movingly, an actual news story: the challenger disaster; or Chernobyl.

What is England’s most characteristic sound? We rejoice that in Lucy Worsley: Elizabeth I’s Battle for God’s Music the lady chose the glories of choral evensong. I acknowledge that this was an ancient program, first shown in 2017, but I completely missed it then, and its recent rescreening (BBC4, 24 July and iPlayer) is well worth celebrating, giving the dearth of anything positive on TV about the Church.

With her trademark mischievous and cheeky enthusiasm, Dr Worsley told, pretty accurately, how the Reformers sought to end the glories of late-medieval polyphony, only to be thwarted by Henry VIII’s love of the art. Would Elizabeth follow Edward’s Calvinism, or Mary’s Catholicism? Characteristically, she did neither and both: the Church’s Prayer Book must be Cranmer’s, but her personal delight in music ensured the flourishing, at least in the Chapels Royal, of that tradition still beloved in all churches where worship is not focused on the projector screen .

Eager to observe any — particularly exotic — Christian liturgy, I looked forward to Empress Catherine’s promised coronation in The Great (Channel 4, Wednesday or last week). Alas, in this excessively vulgar, violent, and irreverent romp, only the superlative costumes and jewels provide illumination — unless an utterly ruthless, expletive-laden Patriarch Archbishop tickles your jaded palate. It does mine.

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