In the Critics this week

Terry Eagleton on Roger Scruton, Kate Mossman on Michael Jackson and Anne Applebaum interviewed.

In the Critics section of this week’s New Statesman, Terry Eagleton reviews Our Church, Roger Scruton’s personal history of the Church of England. “Scruton is homesick for the medieval England of Piers Plowman,” Eagleton writes. “He seems not to know that it was . . . a place of filth, fanaticism and excruciating torture.” Eagleton argues that Scruton has succumbed to his Romantic prejudices. “One suspects that this maverick intellectual is as fervent as he is about belonging because he will never really be able to.”

In the Books interview, Jonathan Derbyshire talks to Anne Applebaum about her new book about eastern Europe after the Second World War, Iron Curtain. “There’s a very real sense,” she says, “in which Soviet totalitarianism contained the seeds of its own destruction.”

Also in Books: William Cook on an edition of Mary Whitehouse’s letters of complaint to broadcasters in the 1960s and 1970s; Emma Hogan reviews John Batchelor’s biography of Alfred Tennyson; Anita Sethi on Ali Smith’s essay collection Artful; philosopher Simon Blackburn reviews Mind and Cosmos by Thomas Nagel, and finds Nagel giving succour to creationists and fans of intelligent design; the BBC’s environment analyst Roger Harrabin on The Carbon Crunch by Dieter Helm; and Toby Litt on Julian Cope’s Copendium.

Our Critic at large this week is Kate Mossman, who revisits Michael Jackson’s epoch-making album Thriller, 30 years after its original release. “One of the reasons Thriller still sounds so brilliant today,” Mossman writes, “is that what came next” – Jackson’s radical experiments with cosmetic surgery – “never enters your head.”

Elsewhere in the Critics: Alexandra Coghlan on pianist Ben Grosvenor at the Queen Elizabeth Hall; NS theatre critic Andrew Billen on Damned by Despair, This House and The River; Rachel Cooke on the BBC’s Dickens update, Nick Nickleby; Antonia Quirke on the sacking of Danny Baker of BBC London 94.9; Ryan Gilbey on Ben Affleck’s Argo; Thomas Calvocoressi visits a new gallery in the Parisian banlieue; and Will Self’s Real Meals.

Michael Jackson in the mid-1980s (Photograph: Getty Images)
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Broken and The Trial: From Sean Bean playing a priest to real life lawyers

A surprisingly involving depiction of a clergyman provides the saintly contrast to the sinner being judged by a real jury.

I was all set to scoff at Broken, Jimmy McGovern’s new series for BBC1 (30 May, 9pm). A drama about a Catholic priest and his impoverished parish in a “major northern city”, it sounded so hilariously McGovern-by-numbers (“Eh, lad, give us the collection bowl – the leccy wants paying”) that on paper it could pass for a spoof. Even funnier, Sean Bean, late of Game of Thrones, was to play the clergyman in question.

Naturally, I adore Bean, who comes from the major northern city that is Sheffield, as I do, and who is so terribly . . . virile (though when I interviewed him in a car park behind King’s Cross Station a few years ago, and a security guard in a high-vis jacket approached us furiously shouting the odds, he ran and hid in his trailer, leaving yours truly to face the music). But let’s face it: he’s not exactly versatile, is he? The idea of him in a cassock, or even just a mud-coloured cardigan, made me laugh out loud.

Settling down to watch the series, however, I soon realised that no scoffing would be taking place. For one thing, Broken is hugely involving, its Dickensian plot (no spoilers here) as plausible as it is macabre. For another, in the present circumstances, its script seems to be rather daring. Not only is Father Michael Kerrigan shown – cover my eyes with the collected works of Richard Dawkins! – to be a good and conscientious priest, but his faith is depicted as a fine and useful thing. If he brings his besieged parishioners solace, he is sure to be carrying vouchers for the food bank as well.

The flashbacks from which he suffers – in which his mammy can be heard calling him a “dirty, filthy beast” and a spiteful old priest is seen applying a cane to his hand – are undoubtedly clichéd. But they are also a device. Forty years on, he is happy to nurse his dying mother, and his love for God is undimmed: two facts that are not, of course, unrelated. How weirdly bold for a television series to set its face against the consensus that denigrates all things Christian as it never would any other faith.

I don’t for a minute buy Anna Friel as Christina, the gobby, broke single mother Kerrigan is determined to help. Even when covered in bruises – a bust-up at the betting shop – Friel manages to look glossy, and she never, ever quits acting (with a capital A), which is a drag. But Bean is such a revelation, I was able to ignore the voice in my head which kept insisting that a Catholic priest as young as he is – in this realm, “young” is a couple of years shy of 60 – would surely be Polish or African (I’m not a Catholic but I am married to one, for which reason I occasionally go to Mass).

He plays Kerrigan, whose overwhelming desire to be kind sometimes makes him cack-handed, with great gentleness, but also with an uninflected ordinariness that is completely convincing. Part of the problem (my problem, at least) with Communion is the lack of rhetorical passion in most priests’ voices, something he captures perfectly. One other thing: Line of Duty fans need to know that Adrian Dunbar – aka Ted Hastings – can also be seen here wearing a dog collar, and that he looks almost as good in it as he does in police uniform.

On Channel 4 The Trial: A Murder in the Family was an experiment in the shape of a murder trial in which the defendant – a university lecturer accused of strangling his estranged wife – and all the witnesses were actors but the lawyers and “jury” were real. Over five consecutive nights (21-25 May, 9pm), I found it pretty tiresome listening to jury members tell the camera what they made of this or that bit of evidence.

Get on with it, I thought, longing again for the return of Peter Moffat’s Silk. But I adored the lawyers, particularly the lead ­defence barrister, John Ryder, QC. What an actor. Sentences left his mouth fully formed, as smooth as they were savage, his charm only just veiling his mighty ruthlessness. Drooling at this performance – which was not, in one sense, a performance at all – I found myself thinking that if more priests came over like barristers, our dying churches might be standing room only.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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