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TV & Radio

TELEVISION / When silence speaks louder than words

'HE'S A sick man . . .' said Karen Armstrong in Witness (C4). She was talking about the Pope and, given the uniformly hostile nature of what had gone before, you wondered for a moment whether she had decided to throw caution to the wind. Actually, she was talking about his current state of health, as her following remark made clear, but I'm still not sure whether there wasn't something a little sly about the tiny pause she inserted. Promising device, anyway, for those who feel obliged to contain their abuse within the confines of mannerly discourse. 'The Pope is out to lunch . . .', you might say, before adding, '. . . with visiting clergymen from Guatemala.'

Armstrong had opened the programme by telling us what Jesus would have thought of Vatican ceremonial, a rhetorical device which is usually a good sign that you are in the presence of theological insurrection. The Pope, she explained, was the world's 'last great absolute monarch' and he ran his Church in a way 'strangely out of kilter with the democratic tenor of today's world'. Hardly strange if he is an absolute monarch, I would have thought, but the pretence of bafflement was part of Armstrong's rhetorical armoury. Later she talked of a 'right-wing Catholic backlash which bears an uncanny resemblance to Protestant fundamentalism', but as she had just finished drawing an explicit parallel between the doctrines of papal infallibility and the Protestant idea of the inerrancy of scripture, her surprise was a little surprising.

Other details of her approach also irritated this particular unbeliever - her tendency to offer interviewees a precis of what she thought they wanted to say, for one thing, and a certain vagueness about the limits to liberalisation. I'm with her on the Church's attitude to contraception - a doctrine which daily amplifies human misery - but I can't help wondering whether local democracy is the best model for the elaboration of faith.

Armstrong argued against a central monolithic dogma in favour of a Church more responsive to its believers' desires (what the Pope, in a rather good phrase, calls Cafeteria Christianity), and as evidence of dictatorial inflexibility she cited the case of an African bishop - apparently punished for incorporating healing sessions with a python into church services. But, even if the northern churches might be enlivened by the Hiss of Peace, there presumably must come a moment when, even for her, anything doesn't go? When that moment comes, won't she be just as inflexible as the current Pope?

What penance, I wondered, for Deborah, the character at the heart of Suffer the Little Children (BBC 2)? The play consisted of the confession of a mother who had killed her seven-month-old baby, a confession delivered not in church but in a police interview room. Having lost one baby to a cruelly progressive disease, she discovers that her second son has been born with the same illness. She kills him when it becomes clear that his future is pain and nothing but.

Her account, in Jane Horrocks's stunning performance, moves from controlled recollection of the first loss, the confident narrative of someone who has been over an event again and again, to a gulping, distressed reliving of the second. Along the way she giggles at brief fond memories, re-enacts arguments with the doctors, pleads for your understanding, confesses to her failures, winces again at the terrible hurt of knowing that her loving embrace could only add to the pain. It was a performance of utter veracity, made of hesitations and stumbles, as if the words hardly dared touch the things they described. It also made me cry, though to what purpose I'm still not sure.