Sometimes the best moments on television are the ones that blindside you, coming from an angle you don’t expect.
There was a nice example in Jam & Jerusalem last night, a little moment of extraordinarily intense feeling staging an ambush on an audience that was probably meandering along perfectly happily, expecting to be called on for nothing more than a gentle chuckle or a half smile of recognition. It brought tears to my eyes, in fact, which was partly just sympathetic vibration, since everybody on screen was dabbing at theirs, but was also something to do with how true the scene was to the little society that Jennifer Saunders has created in Clatterford. Maybe the scheduling helped too – this series of the rural sitcom having been written in 30-minute segments but transmitted in three hour-long episodes, a slot that makes it easier to think of it as a wry kind of drama rather than a sitcom.
Anyway, the scene in question involved Caroline, the character Saunders plays herself, a brisk horsey type from the big house, who only occasionally pops up to drop celebrity names or be peremptory with one of the other characters. After a misunderstanding, Caroline had found herself hosting a dinner party at which both Rosie, her cleaning lady, and the misanthropic vicar were going to be present, and though it stretched credulity a little that someone so brusque wouldn’t have untangled the misunderstanding with scant regard to bruised feelings, the scene that followed made you forget the quibble. Caroline’s son Chris had just been posted to Afghanistan – the prompt for sympathetic murmurs from everyone present, which she brushed off with a county sturdiness: “It’s his job you see... that’s our way of thinking. He loves it and it’s bloody good for him.” But then, after she’d let slip that he’d been sending video messages that she hadn’t yet watched, Sal insisted on pulling out the laptop and playing one of them.
In between shots of an awkward young man in camouflage gear, the camera cut to Caroline’s face – rigidly inexpressive. When it was finished she said something dismissive: “I am amazed they allow them to have their hair that long! But I suppose since Prince
Harry anything goes.” And then, walking away from the table her face crumpled and she wept, a beautifully heartfelt bit of acting from Saunders. Inadequately suppressed emotion is always more moving than the splurging, showy kind, and what Caroline did next, brusquely apologising for her silliness and trying to stem the tears by talking to the dog, turned the screw even tighter. I haven’t seen anything recently – and that includes Peter Bowker’s fine Iraq drama Occupation – which so touchingly captured the strain of home-front bravery.
It was a moment of considerable finesse, too, to get the whole thing through the points and back on to the comedy track, something achieved by having Rosie blunder through some suggestions about what might be in Chris’s “In the event of my death” letter, which make it increasingly clear that she’s actually surreptitiously read it. But none of this would have worked without the low-key precision with which the writing pins down its various types. “It’s in John’s study, on top of the Grundig, next to the Amstrad,” said Caroline at one point, giving directions as to how to find something, and the brand names precisely targeted a certain kind of household – well-off but careful – in which things are used until they’re unrepairable. Anyone nervous with a sitcom bold enough to admit real and painful feelings will have been reassured by the more straightforward comedy of the Clatterford Ladies Guild fashion show, which included the commentary line “fully expandable for those bloated days” – not often heard in Milan or Paris.
Anthony Thomas’s film for the Revelations series, How Do You Know God Exists?, was very mysterious, since in no imaginable universe was less than 50 minutes of broadcast time going to allow for a sensible discussion of the questions he was asking about faith and ethics and the problem of evil. Again and again, you wanted a supplementary to the first necessarily bland and generalised answer, not necessarily because the faithful would have been pinned into a corner, but because we might have got into some of the theological complexities of the matter. “Religions are very good at binding people together in communities,” said the Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. Yes, Chief Rabbi, but why are they so good at getting those communities to kill other ones whose faith is marginally different? “Condoms don’t lack their advocates,” said Archbishop Vincent Nichols, sidestepping a question about the deadly effect of Catholic teaching on contraception in the developing world. Yes indeed, Archbishop, but why exactly does the Church do everything it can to neutralise their efforts? These are thoughtful men who wrestle daily with intractable dilemmas. It would have been nice if they’d had time to do it on screen.