Television Review

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The Independent Culture
At the beginning of Priest (BBC2), Father Greg's predecessor in his Liverpool parish charges his bishop with unchristian indifference. This isn't a metaphor: one of the opening shots of Antonia Bird's film is of Father Ellerton, whiskery and whiskyish, galloping across the Bishop's lawn with a crucifix levelled like a jousting pole. Cut to the Bishop making plans for his replacement, as his study windows are repaired. Father Greg looks like the solution, a young man of callow piety and impeccable dogma. In fact, he's a bigger problem still; he's gay and, before the film is out, will be up in court on charges of indecency.

Priest, then, involves a problem of faith, but not just the vexed face- off between private sexuality and public moralising which afflicts Father Greg, or his agonised impotence after a girl has told him, under seal of the confessional, that she is being abused. The audience is invited to share both dilemmas, but most, I expect, will have been distracted by larger doubts - can we really believe in Father Greg himself? It isn't that the figure you first meet seems unconvincing - Linus Roache plays him with a gauche conviction as he eases into the briny embrace of his new parishioners - all salty common sense and ready tears. But the revelation that this innocent zealot has his own secret retrospectively undermines the character's simplicity - it's as though the narrative has been telling you a lie rather than merely holding something back and Roache's performance has been complicit in the deceit.

Returning from an alcoholic wake, Father Greg whips off the dog collar, pulls on his leather jacket and goes clubbing. It isn't long before he's making the beast with one back. But though Father Greg knows his way around Liverpool's gay scene - although he knows his way around a man's body, come to that - his life as a gay man is oddly unconvincing. He's shocked, for example, when he later finds another boy in his lover's room. He knows how to cruise, in other words, but has somehow missed out on the fact that there's a regatta in full swing.

It is, of course, important for Jimmy McGovern's script that Father Greg falls in love with his one-night stand, because otherwise the audience might have to confront a desire unconsecrated by love - a word which usefully has both sacramental and human applications. To its credit, the film doesn't scorn the consolation of faith - it comes to a sort of accommodation with religious belief, but only because Father Greg finally comes into line with what is a far greater authority for this film, that of emotional tenderness. In these terms he must turn from the sin of ecclesiastical obedience, the sin of spiritual discipline, before he is forgiven for his little weakness - the fact that he believes in God. He returns to share mass with the flawed, lovable, accommodating Father Matthew, his tutor in the unlaced conscience, but the exaltation of the final scenes is never really religious. After a scriptural shoot-out with the forces of bigotry, Father Greg is forgiven by the abused girl he betrayed by not betraying her confidence. What plays on the soundtrack is not sacred music but "You'll Never Walk Alone", that cheesy Broadway sanctus.

Tx is television shorthand for "transmission" and also the title for BBC2's new arts strand, filling an Arena-shaped hole in the schedules. It is, I would guess, a reference opaque to about 95 per cent of the audience and it gives the impression that this is television made for television professionals, incestuous and self-preening. This is unfortunate because Rex Bloomstein's film "Hustlers, Hoaxters, Pranksters, Jokestars and Ricky Jay" was a subtle, delightful account of a great prestidigitator. It showed a vulgar pleasure raised to the level of art, and included a piece of card-sharping so baffling and psychologically unnerving that two days on I'm beginning to think that magic might be the only explanation.