Saturday 14 October 2017


A BBC radio programme I particularly enjoy is Radio 3's Free Thinking.

It's like a higher-quality version of Radio 4's Start the Week, and it's usually on for five nights a week. Its presenters are excellent and the range of topics is wide. It goes pleasingly deep too. And it's surprisingly broad-minded too on matters political.

Catching up with the more promising-looking editions of last week's offerings I came across an interview with Ronan Bennett, the writer of a new, three-part, prime-time BBC One historical drama about the Gunpowder Plot.

My ears pricked up as he talked about his intentions and reading the BBC's mission statement about the series confirms those intentions. 

Yes, this high-profile drama (which the Telegraph's Tim Stanley says is "edge-of-the-seat" stuff) will be about "showing the consequences of what can happen when a religious minority is persecuted". And it will have a "contemporary resonance”. 

The Catholic would-terrorists of 1605 will be cast as sympathetic human beings who had valid reasons to feel anger against the "relentlessly repressive" state, though there would be plenty of nuance and their violent intentions won't (it appears) be condoned.

Presenter Rana Mitter pointed out that James I began as a good deal less repressive towards Catholics than Elizabeth I, but Ronan was sticking to his guns (so to speak) and was clearly not allowing facts to get in the way of a good plot (so to speak). 

Rana also drew out of Ronan Bennett what those "contemporary resonances" would be. They would be (a) to suggest to English Brexit voters that they take a good long look back at history and realise that English nationalism isn't a good thing and (b) that Muslims today are in a similar situation to Catholics in Jacobean England and that the state shouldn't be repressive towards them.

Why do BBC dramas have to always be like this, pushing messages all the time (and almost always the same kind of messages to boot)?

Rana reminded us of Ronan's controversial past and asked if it led him to sympathise with the would-be terrorists of 1605. (That's why I like Free Thinking. It doesn't give its guests a free ride).

Now Rana said that, yes, the series does have plenty of nuance and Ronan said that he wasn't trying to be propagandist. So we'll have to see.

Alas I remember Ronan Bennett's last high-profile BBC drama - a much-promoted radio play for Radio 4 about the migrant crisis called 'Our Sea'. I wrote about it at the time, calling it "agitprop" and "shocking bias from the BBC".

If it's anything like that then the anti-Brexit, be-nice-to-the-Muslims stuff will be laid on with a Spanish Armada-sized trowel.

I do hope not (but I will not be holding my breath).


  1. Veering off a bit about a small other thing on Radio 3. Was just listening to Jazz Record Requests when the presenter introduced a record requested for today's 40th anniversary of the Death of Bing Crosby and said it was in the language of the time. Oh? It turned out to be a jolly duet between Bing Crosby and Johnny Mercer from 1938 about the origins and meaning of jazz. It had a line which referenced a Negro band swinging. Heavens above. Is that it? Someone must sit down and listen attentively to every line and word before deciding a harmless word in its ordinary use, needs a special pre-broadcast flag.

    1. Yes, it's here, "using language of the period", from 56.18:

    2. And yet the Rolling Stones' celebration of the delights of white slave ownership - Brown Sugar - is perfectly acceptable. Go figure as New Yorkers used to say...

  2. Back to the gunpowder: What Bloody Mary did to protestants was, of course, entirely justified and Philip's Armada was merely an early attempt to create a European union. The trouble with the BBC is that they can never resist bashing their own country, even if it means siding with the likes of Mary & Philip who were considerably more repressive than Elizabeth.

  3. Basically this is a case of a terrorist sympathiser writing a play which sympathises with terrorists. Makes sense.

  4. On the other hand, I've been turning off Radio 3 at 10 o'clock most nights because I've lost patience with "Free Thinking". Perhaps that's why I hadn't heard about this new play.

    As a Brexit-voting Catholic Englishman I'm disinclined to take lessons in English nationalism from an Irishman, much as I like the Irish (at least some of them). I looked up this Ronan Bennett, and while I see that his conviction for terrorist murder was quashed, and that he was acquitted of further terrorist charges, even the Guardian describes him as an "Irish republican revolutionary" (or, perhaps, that's a compliment in their book). I see, also, that he's a Corbyn fanboy, which is of a piece. I can see why the BBC (a) commissioned this play from him (b) had him on to be interviewed. I can see it, but I certainly don't like it.

    In respect of Islam, I used (oh ... twenty years ago or more) to imagine the word "Moslem" replaced by "Catholic", etc., and ask myself "how would I feel about that criticism?" That was when I took the bien pensant view of Islam for granted. But I've learned since them, and learned better. Not only is Islam not Christianity, it is not even like Christianity in almost any way of relevance to our cultural and political life, nor is it like any other religion of which I am aware; surely none present in this land. It would be quite reasonable to treat Islam as a phenomenon quite unlike any other, and differently from any other - although I wouldn't go so far as to have English-born imams hung, drawn, and quartered.

    In respect of James I, although it's a while since I studied the period (as an amateur, I should add), my understanding is that prominent English Catholics had high hopes of toleration under his rule, that he strung them along at first, but that he eventually disappointed them. I think that's the context of the Gunpowder plot. I wouldn't describe the plot as terrorism, but as an attempted assassination. (I notice, however, that modern English law doesn't make such a distinction.)

    Perhaps I'm being unkind to Ronan Bennett and the BBC. I didn't hear the programme, after all. But I'll take that risk. I think it's a small one.


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