TV review

Living on a prayer

The Times

September 4, 2008


God on Trial (BBC Two)
Lost in Austen (ITV1)

Wednesday night seems to be officially designated “hard drama” night on BBC Two. If you thought My Zinc Bed last week was wholemeal, God on Trial was really hardcore. In Frank Cottrell Boyce’s drama a group of Jewish concentration camp prisoners — half of whom are about to be gassed — debated the presence and purpose of God in a crowded bunkhouse. Did what they were being forced to endure count as God’s design or a breach of his Covenant?

There was the insistence of order, a resolute sense that though they were in the midst of madness and injustice, this exercise would be carried out with sobriety and some semblance of reason — their ultimate defiance to the inhumanity around them.

The trial (and it was supposed to have happened) was peppered with cutaways to the present day and the visit of a tour party to the camp. They went through empty, scarred rooms revealed in the drama to be key locations, for example where prisoners were separated left and right — life and death. In one of the scenes that didn’t take part in the “courtroom”, a new batch of prisoners had their heads and beards shaved: the sound of clipping combined with the sound of their tears. The bunkhouse was so small that people stood to speak in a tiny square, the beds formed a kind of public gallery.

The discussion — sometimes heated, sometimes half- whispered, always charged — went back and forth. If suffering is God’s design, is Hitler a servant of God? Does God want them to suffer and die? Why, as Jews, do they think that they have a monopoly on God? The convicted criminal who oversaw the bunkhouse spat that he just wanted to survive and would do anything to do so. What use is free will? Ultimately, God was found guilty of a breach of contract, although this verdict was revealed in the present day by an old man. You wondered who he was in the “past” scene, if he had been present at all.

The performances were so strong it felt a privilege to watch the actors, among them Antony Sher, Rupert Graves, Stephen Dillane and Jack Shepherd. With all reason, anger, personal testi- mony and philosophical and theological argument spent all that was left was prayer — as they were rounded up, beaten, abused and taken to the chambers, the men as one prayed and they carried on praying in the chamber. In a brilliant, arresting sleight of hand, the director Andy de Emmony mixed the prisoners, naked and shorn, together with the present-day touring party in the gas chamber. Were their prayers answered, one girl asked the old man we presumed to be her grandfather as they went back to the coach. “We’re still here,” he replied, smiling.

Carpers will say you can have too much Jane Austen, but Guy Andrews’s Lost in Austen is a funny, clever breeze. Amanda (Jemima Rooper) is a Pride and Prejudice fanatic, a dreamer with a loser boyfriend. One day Elizabeth Bennet (Gemma Arterton) appears in her bathroom — through a door in her wall lies the world of the novel. Amanda ends up with the Bennets, and Elizabeth in present-day Hammersmith. It is a culture-clashing, time-clashing Walnut Whip of frothy nonsense with the intriguing proposition that Amanda may be able to change the outcome of her fictional touchstone. But what’s Elizabeth getting up to in Hammersmith?