Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THERE IS nothing like the end of a millennium for raising anxiety levels. What are we here for? What's the point of it all? Is it true that the champagne's already run out? Faced with these nagging imponderables, the life of a monk in an enclosed order begins to look not merely attractive but, in a late Nineties-ish, spiritually aware, Blairite sort of way, deeply cool.

It is easy to see why the producers of Behind Closed Doors (BBC2) should have fancied making a film about Mount St Bernard Abbey, in Leicestershire; rather harder to grasp why the abbey's 38 Cistercian monks should have thought it wise, having retired from the world, suddenly to unveil their mysteries to the promiscuous gaze of the camera.

Television is ravenous for secrets, the rarer the better. Elusive animals, undiscovered Stone Age tribes, distraught princesses all do their bit for the ratings, while allowing us, watching from our sofas, the flattering sensation of belonging to something bigger and more complex - some secret pattern, of which we can grasp no more than a glamorous fragment.

The monks of Mount St Bernard would certainly argue that the universe has its grand design. One of them, Father John, intimated that this is what lay behind the 900-year-old community's decision to go on the telly. "It's good to look at our vocation afresh, and situate it in the culture and times in which we live... This is all the more important in an age that has largely lost faith. By living as we are meant to be living, perhaps we can help bring sanity back to our world."

Wondering whether the monks would be allowed to watch themselves - if, indeed, they actually own a television - you could imagine that this feathery sort of proselytising might well get results. Recently, there has been some relaxation in the rules by which the order lives: worship is no longer in Latin; the monks no longer exist in silence, communicating by hand signals; nor do they sleep in their habits. "We have pyjamas," confided Fr John, stuffing his pillow into a flowery pillow-slip with a practised hand. "But, on the whole, a medieval monk who came back would recognise us as monks."

The camera, of course, loved the grand simplicity of rituals in their ancient surroundings - the pale-gold stone, the blue light, the book-of- hours pastoral of the monastery garden, the hooded figures processing in candlelight or rapt in prayer. It is a look that editors of glossy interiors magazines have nervous breakdowns trying to achieve. "Ah," said Father Bede, "the people who leave are the ones who thought they were going to float along Gothic cloisters on a cloud of unknowing."

The monks interviewed spoke of their vocation with the eccentric candour of those unused to idle chat. "In much speaking," remarked Father Bede, "you do not avoid sin. It just goes on and on. Like this interview." The more they talked, the more you could discern the struggle that underpinned the orderly calm and simplicity.

Of these complicated, intelligent men, the most joyful by far was the youngest, Fr John Paul, who joined the community in 1997, to his mother's chagrin. The programme's title, "A God-shaped Space", was his coinage; an attempt at explaining his attachment to his chosen way of life. "There's always a space somewhere inside. A hollow that needs filling. It's a kind of God-shaped space, and only God can fill it." To a gentle, uncritical film, so respectful of its subjects as to seem almost incurious, that statement lent a sudden steely resonance. They'd let us in, for a bit, but we hadn't exactly penetrated the mystery.

In War and Piste (BBC1), the goings-on were rather less hermetic, though the term "closed community" might still apply - especially if you happened to be Fraser or Scott, two public-school hobbledehoys who had arrived in Val d'Isere with plans to spend the ski season in a converted garage. "Scott and Fraser," announced the commentary - well to the facetious end of larky - "are ski bums." Bang on cue, we cut to a shot of Fraser's lily-white bum. This was right at the beginning of the season, mind you. A couple of weeks on, and a degree of existential angst had begun to overtake the pair of them, along with the washing-up, which had started creeping down to join the binbags of filthy clothes that covered the floor.

"It's an absolute shithole," said Fraser, in the prim tones of a man whose mummy has never told him the truth about the Housework Fairy. "Have you got my clean socks, Scott?" "No, man," croaked Scott. "I've got nothing clean in the world." Oh dear, I do hope that nothing bad is going to happen to either of them.