Television Review

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WHEN I hear the word "spirit-ual", I reach for my remote control, as when, in The Dome: Trouble at the Big Top (BBC2), Peter Mandelson said: "There is a spiritual dimension to our lives." Fortunately, I resisted the impulse to zap over and so heard him carry on: "And indeed, if it weren't for Christianity, we wouldn't be celebrating the millennium. I mean, we are, you know, 2000, er, you know, AD, um - no, what are we? BC? No no, AD. Oh..."

Quite. Do you get the impression that this man is not altogether at home in the world of religion? But that is where spirituality comes in: it's a warm, woolly blanket that we can use to cover up any differences between the religious and the irreligious. As for what it actually means - well, all the things that the godless have in mind when they use the word can be denoted far more precisely by other concepts ("mental", "emotional", "aesthetic", and so on). Bundling them altogether under the label "spiritual" simply adds a God-ish note to the discussion without endorsing the existence of God as such.

But this sort of blurriness can't be sustained: once you're talking about the "spiritual", you've in effect admitted the existence of a spirit. And when you've opened the door that far, how do you keep God out? Trying to think about the soul without bringing God into it is like trying to supply meat without killing animals. (Any reader who thinks this is wrong, and can supply a meaningful, atheistic definition of "spirit" or "spiritual" is welcome to write in. No prizes: just award yourself a brief glow of transcendence.)

So no wonder the people in charge of the Millennium Dome were in a mess by the end of last night's programme, which followed the project through its first troubled year. Having started with grand but vague ideas of a "Spirit Zone" - which would be about religion, only without any of that nasty doctrine, those horribly concrete beliefs that people will insist on holding - they ended up giving in to the demands of bishops for some properly Christian content. But, of course, it had to be inclusively multi-faith at the same time. No wonder the poor architect in charge of the zone seemed confused.

To be fair, it wasn't only in the Spirit Zone that conceptual confusion reigned. The whole project, on this showing, will be a monument to half-baked ideas. Mandelson himself, who you might have thought had some grand vision, when asked his reason for taking on the Dome, answered: "Because I was a minister and I was told to."

Unfortunately, nebulousness doesn't go down well on television, even with a spoonful of schadenfreude. What the series needs is some charismatic central figure, but Mandelson himself is too uptight. Ronnie Macfarlane, a former rodeo rider from Oklahoma who was in charge of attaching the Dome's roof to its frame, looked promising ("My role? Asshole for the company... I get to kind of do all the dirty work"), but an excess of Sergio Leone film music every time he wandered on screen rather killed the fun. Three weeks to go, and it may get better; but so far, this is not the way I want to remember the end of the century.