In 1987 an elderly architect called Michael Dale was found bludgeoned to death at his home in Shropshire. Suspicion fell upon his ex-wife, Baroness Susan de Stempel, who was tried and acquitted for want of evidence, although in the course of the police investigation it was found that she had systematically swindled her aged aunt, Lady Illingworth, out of a fortune. Along with two of her children, the Baroness – whose later marriage had been to an old roué with a claim to an ancient Latvian title – was convicted of fraud, and sent to prison.
I know about this story because at the time of Dale's murder Baroness de Stempel lived in the tiny village of Docklow in Herefordshire, where I live now; indeed, there's a phone box on our drive that she often used, doubtless when she wanted not to be overheard. She's long since left the area, yet more than two decades on the gossip still reverberates hereabouts. As for the relevance of Susan de Stempel's story to Ian Hislop's Age of the Do-Gooders, it is indirect but straightforward. Her maiden name was Wilberforce and she was the great-great granddaughter of William Wilberforce, celebrated by posterity for his pivotal role in the abolition of slavery two centuries ago, but a fierce moral crusader in all kinds of other ways.
That his descendant should have turned out to be an amoral fraudster is an historical irony that would probably have appealed to some of Wilberforce's contemporaries, who considered him a dreadful old spoilsport. Something of a convert to righteousness having been a bit of a lad himself, he spoke out against vice of all sorts, and also helped to form the RSPCA. To convey just what an upright fellow he was, Hislop collared, or perhaps dog-collared, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who declared that he, Wilberforce rather than Hislop, had "made a remarkable difference to the human dignity of millions".
The Private Eye editor does these documentaries very well, with authority but not solemnity. And he always gets good talking heads, which is impressive, given that some of them must have been skewered by his magazine over the years, but then you can never underestimate the seductive power of the television camera. Whatever, the head of the Civil Service Sir Gus O'Donnell popped up to lavish praise on a slightly later do-gooder, Charles Trevelyan, who put an end to the "jobs for the boys" ethos in the civil service by instituting the exacting entrance exam that in slightly different form still exists today. At a stroke of the quill, civil servants became brighter and politically non-partisan, their job prospects no longer dependent on being born into privilege. O'Donnell himself is a beneficiary of Trevelyan's vision; he went to a south London state school, not Eton, Harrow or Winchester.
Wilberforce, Trevelyan and other do-gooders were not perfect (Trevelyan was shockingly high-handed in his treatment of the benighted Irish during the potato famine), but together they rid society of many inequities, and diluted the curse of nepotism. Nor was it entirely coincidental that they emerged within a few decades of each other. Hislop attributed it to a reaction against the general licentiousness of the late 18th century, and to the new imperatives of the Industrial Revolution. Not, of course, that social injustice had exactly been wiped out by 1850. The novels of Charles Dickens positively depended on it.
Great literary and artistic creativity has always coincided with periods of human suffering, whether the suffering is caused by social inequality, religious persecution, war, plague or all of the above. And nowhere is this truer than Germany. "I believe one of the most revealing ways to explore the complexities of the German character is through the story of German art," said Andrew Graham-Dixon, and of course he would, wouldn't he, as the similarly double-barrelled Mandy Rice-Davies once said in different circumstances. His series, after all, is called Art of Germany.
Still, he more than backed up his assertion, explaining how the perennial contradictions of the German psyche are reflected in art: the need for escapism on the one hand, the desire for control on the other; the love of nature, versus the love of the machine. Once of this newspaper, Graham-Dixon was a most genial, eloquent and informative guide on a tour through Germany and through the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the "abyss of the Third Reich where art was twisted into a tool of terror". His scripts are terrific, and ably supported by his charm, enthusiasm and persuasiveness. In the nicest possible way, he makes me feel a little inadequate for ambling into all those churches on all those holidays, briefly admiring a fresco or a sculpture, and then ambling out again. Where the rest of us see a nice bit of marble, he finds an absorbing story.
Also filling me with feelings of inadequacy – for the comparative dullness of my banter, the relative poverty of my impressions – are Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, regrettably coming towards the end of The Trip. There's been precious little else on the box these last few years that has got my wife and me shedding big fat tears of laughter, but The Trip never fails to oblige. I love it for its originality and its daring. And hats off to Coogan in particular for allowing himself to seem so obsessed with his place in the entertainment firmament. Last night, he compared his own three Baftas to Brydon's none, which wouldn't have been quite so funny without the suspicion that he meant it.
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