David McSavage and Brendan Gleeson in Calvary.
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Why pop culture won’t lay a finger on paedophile priests, despite years of abuse scandals

The subject still awaits its defining cinematic treatment.

Heroic bankers and altruistic politicians are – for obvious recent reasons – rarely to be found as characters in modern culture. And, given the scale of the revelations of the occurrence and covering-up of sexual abuse by priests, you might assume that the same would be true of sincere and celibate Roman Catholic clergy.

Yet, in these bad times for the Vatican, good priests are surprisingly in evidence on-screen. Father James Lavelle, played by Brendan Gleeson in Calvary (released on 11 April), is as unimpeachably true to his vocation as that other high-profile representative of the Catholic priesthood in BBC1’s recent Father Brown, adapted from G K Chesterton’s ecclesiastical detective stories.

As Father Brown is a period piece, set before the paedophile scandals, the ordained investigator is free from suspicion. But, in Calvary, the writer-director John Michael McDonagh employs a deliberate strategy of tempting the audience to think the worst of Gleeson’s character. When Father Lavelle is alone with an altar boy or chats to a young girl in a country lane, we are ready to damn him but his intentions are always innocent.

Admittedly, the character is a compromised compliment to Catholicism. McDonagh’s motivation is more artistic than propagandistic. Such is the reputation of Roman Catholic clergy that a good priest – like a good Nazi in war films – wrong-foots the audience. There is also the advantage of putting clear holy water between his work and that of his brother, Martin McDonagh, whose In Bruges (2008) begins with the botched murder, in a confession box, of a paedophile priest.

In an intriguing variation on that premise, Calvary begins with Lavelle hearing the confession of an unseen parishioner who was once a victim of sexual abuse. The penitent reveals that he will kill the confessor in a week’s time: a good priest slain as a surrogate for all the bad ones, after a period of knowing that his death is preordained, like Christ carrying his cross to Calvary.

By beginning in a confessional, Calvary alludes not only to In Bruges but also to the 1953 film I Confess, by (the lapsed Catholic) Alfred Hitchcock, in which Montgomery Clift suffers the burden of being unable to reveal a murder confessed to him by a penitent. John Cornwell, in his book The Dark Box: a Secret History of Confession, discusses the cinematic uses of what Catholics call the sacrament of absolution but he goes much further than film-makers have – he argues that whispering sins in the dark encouraged sexual abuse, by locking an often sexually frustrated priest in a sort of cupboard with vulnerable young people.

Calvary contains frequent references to the Catholic Church’s child abuse crisis but the film paradoxically approaches the subject through a protagonist who is a perfect advertisement for the clergy and a script that presents faith and forgiveness uncynically as virtues. In this respect, it is representative of the reluctance of cinema and television to tackle directly clerical pederasty.

Popular culture has a good record of dealing with social and political trends before the authorities notice them. Versions of the 9/11 attacks, for example, occurred many times in novels and films (including Tom Clancy’s 1991 thriller The Sum of All Fears) before they became an al-Qaeda plot.

Fictional Catholic priests, however, have tended to be presented as either devil-busters – in the genre spawned by The Exorcist – or sexually as a bigger threat to adult women parishioners than to children. Richard Chamberlain’s Father Ralph de Bricassart, in the devoutly received 1983 miniseries The Thorn Birds, was also a womaniser, while in the 1994 film Priest (written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Antonia Bird), the central clerics are having sex with a female housekeeper and a consenting adult male.

Even in Doubt (2008), a film made after the extent of sexual depravity by priests became known, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as a school chaplain under suspicion of abusing a pupil, the script deliberately leaves open the possibility that the accusations are false. Until Calvary, the most powerful treatment of Catholicism’s shame was in Pedro Almodóvar’s Bad Education (2004), although, again, the narrative tackles the subject through distancing tactics.

One reason for the relative paucity of fictional responses is that few actors or directors would feel comfortable spending two hours with a character as morally abhorrent as a man committing sex crimes in the name of God. Another is a perhaps surprising level of residual cultural respect for the Church. Given the scale and gravity of the sexual revelations, Catholicism has been treated kindly by mass entertainment, although the portrayal of the Vatican as the baddie in two hugely popular fictional franchises – Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books and, in the guise of the evil Magisterium, in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy – can be attributed to general revulsion at the scandals.

The subject still awaits its defining cinematic treatment: filmgoers might pray for such a movie by Martin Scorsese, a failed candidate for the priesthood. Until then, Calvary gets to the heart of the matter by bypassing it – cleverly and thoughtfully addressing the worst men in the Church by showing one of the best. 

Mark Lawson will be writing weekly in the New Statesman

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, NEW COLD WAR

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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