What's black and white and makes you turn over? : REVIEW

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The Independent Culture
Judging from their epilogues, which of the following documentaries are you most glad that you missed?

"Rex spent the next 32 years in prison. On his release he started a successful market gardening business. He plans to retire at 95." "Dolores remarried a further 16 times, and finally found happiness in the arms of Chad's cha-cha-cha champion. She was battered to death in a freak hailstorm at the age of 41." "Jason eventually agreed to undergo treatment, and his therapist predicts that he will be cured of his urge to make love to Safeway's own-brand baked beans within seven or eight years." "Mother MaryAgnes and the sisters have now built their new home and chapel. They continue to give thanks for the simplicity of their island setting."

Those afterwords work only if the narrative that has gone before has gripped you enough to want to know what happened after The End. Only one of the aforegone examples has ever appeared on a screen and, yes, it was the one about the nuns. By definition anun belongs to the most epilogue-resistant profession, because the thing about the contemplative life is that it's a non-event.

The list of nuns who've hit the big time is not a long one. It isn't even a short one. Just as "to boldly go" helped a generation of English teachers to explain the iniquities of the split infinitive, the phrase "television nun" could show schoolchildrenwhat an oxymoron is. After last night's Countrywomen (BBC2), it's safe to assume that Sister Wendy Beckett will not be joined by Mother Mary Agnes on the rollcall of superstar recluses.

The incompatibility of television and nuns is to do with speed of movement. When Sister Agnes, as she was then, got the calling to move to the island of Fetlar in the Shetlands, she thought about it for seven years. In most careers, you just don't get that kind of time to consider job offers. But at least she chose somewhere worth contemplating. Had she heard the calling to establish a small sorority on an allotment on the fringes of Tring, Hertfordshire, she could have waved goodbye to her half hour offame.

When she finally took up residence on Fetlar, she set about the task of being as untelegenic as possible - living alone, praying, the whole bit. She did keep a garden, and that's always a ratings puller on a Friday night, but then there are telegenic ways of fertilising your vegetables. "Digging for seaweed sets one's soul free in a very simple way," Sister Agnes said, conversation-stoppingly, before we cut to yet another shot of her staring uplifted at the harmonious caressing of land and sea. A few years later along came another nun and, TV-wise, things looked up. She brought a car and a computer. Together they converted a house for the use of visitors wanting to do a spot of contemplating, they won a grant from the council and the locals started to turn resentful. Suddenly, we had a story on our hands: invading nuns diddle shepherds, a choice example of the age-old tradition in which calm religiosity gets people's goats. But Countrywomen is a gentle stroll through green and pleasant pastures, and avoids thorns. It might have sought out a seething local - perhaps even the Sikh air traffic controller we tantalisingly glimpsed - but it refrained.

"What we offer is the heart of life," said Sister Agnes, "and the heart of our life is love." Quite without irony, the camera zoomed in on the tea mug she was clutching, plastered with red heart motifs. Mother Mary Agnes, as she has now become, is an admirable woman, but not necessarily the stuff of admirable television.

The Time . . . the Place (ITV) went too far the other way, when a chat about men in dresses turned into a spat about race, and the plug was pulled. A programme about acceptance turned out to be unacceptable.