TELEVISION / Running of the long-distance loner: Kevin Jackson on mature hermits, teenage mothes and unsuitable sons-in-law

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The Independent Culture
FRANKLY, anyone who still thinks that hermits disappeared with the deaths of Stylites (patron saint of columnists) and his brethren is living in a cloud of unknowing. Not only is the BFI's forthcoming blockbuster Anchoress all about reclusive nuns, but last night's Everyman (BBC 1) was wholly devoted to Sister Irene Gibson, the first hermit to be recognised by the Irish church. Sister Irene's life is solitary beyond most people's comprehension or endurance; of late, she has shared her days of toil and prayer with only the sky, the rain, a goat . . . Oh, yes, and a cameraman, a sound-recordist, a PA and a producer / director (Tamasin Day-Lewis).

However, if the very act of exposing this most recondite of existences to the public gaze made Everyman feel painfully intrusive at times, Sister Irene rapidly disarmed all cynicism - even that would-be benevolent cynicism which can read in her craving for solitude only the compulsive flight of a neurotic. Sister Irene herself acknowledged that the self-imposed loneliness of her childhood had indeed been a form of neurosis, but now understands that period of affliction as a necessary stage on her road to a calling. In a memorable phrase, her Archbishop suggested that the hermit's life can be seen as a rebuke to 'the barrenness of secularism', and by the end of the film the rebuke was ringing firm and clear; an unusual thing for a television film to convey, and probably a salutary one.

If the nagging suspicion of voyeurism hung even more strongly about 'Natalie's Baby', the first of a new series of Teenage Diaries (BBC 2, Saturday), the element of edification was harder to spot. Its narrator and heroine, pregnant at 15 by her somewhat charmless swain Keith, said that she had made the film to prove that not all teenage mothers were promiscuous. A reasonable desire, though all that her rather sad journal really seemed to establish was that teenage girls face parenthood with greater maturity than their boyfriends. Natalie never said that she regretted conceiving her child, and one hopes that she won't come to repent her decision to air its dirty nappies before the nation.

'Natalie's Baby' was just the right prelude to the opening episode of the final Cosby Show season (C 4, Sunday), and its pastoral vision of an upper-middle-class black America in which the greatest crisis was a daughter announcing her engagement to a chap who - while a polite, industrious member of the property-owning classes - actually did not have a degree. It would be silly to criticise a show like this for its blandness, since blandness is its appeal: you don't eat tapioca for the jalapeno seasoning.

A small word in defence of On the Air (BBC 2), smuggled out in the early hours of Sunday morning as if the channel were ashamed of it. Admittedly, this comic offshoot of the Twin Peaks stable was a slow burner, but when the narrative fuse finally ran down, it set off a slapstick explosion of apocalyptic dimensions.

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