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Oh me of little faith

Sean O'Grady finds that BBC One's searing ecclesiastical drama Broken requires one suspension of disbelief too many

What would Jesus do? It's a common enough question and it'd be wrong to deride it. Whether you believe in talking donkeys, or the Virgin birth, or any of the other challenging stuff in the Bible, it is perfectly reasonable to consider some moral dilemma against the teachings of Christ, that usually being a reasonable approximation of a humane, if not humanist, solution.

What, then, do you think Jesus would have thought about Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs), as legalised by, and regulated under, the Gambling Act 2005, one of the less lovely legacies of the Blair era? Father Michael (Sean Bean) in Broken on BBC One this week was militantly clear: you should follow the example of Christ driving out the money-changers from the temple.

What's more, Father Michael went on, according to St John's Gospel, Christ didn't just chuck their tables around, but took a whip to the olden-days bankers, as well - inflicting actual bodily harm on them.

A sledgehammer, if not the whip, was what one member of his flock, Chloe Demichelis (Lauren Lyle), had already taken into her local betting shop to end the productive lives of four FOBTs, which admittedly are the devil's work.

It was an act, as the priest put it, about Our Lord's pioneering act of violence, of "righteous anger" against those who'd profit from the desperation of the needy. We had seen how Chloe's mum had taken her own life after becoming addicted to them, the "crack cocaine of gambling", as so many do. Morally defensible, but still criminal damage and leaves you open to a restraining order and a possible prison sentence.

So the sixth episode of Broken was following the pattern of the previous five, grinding its way through the familiar series of social problems being endured by families just about not managing at the a*** end of Theresa May's Britain.

Mental illness, pressurised police, food banks, truanting kids, gambling addiction, the benefits system - you name it, and there was usually a call in to the priest.

Some of the details of the various storylines, such as when Christina Fitzsimmons (Anna Friel) tries to deceive the authorities about the death of her mother in the first episode, may have stretched credulity, but the background reality cannot be challenged.

If anything, as the Grenfell Tower disaster may yet prove, Broken's unstinting catalogue of social evils understates what is happening to the poorest in society. The actors' performances and the photography in Broken were flawless, in the sense that they made the dramatic best of this subject matter. And yet the whole seemed less than the sum of its parts.

This is because the central premise of a Catholic priest occupied 24/7 with the most appalling crimes and circumstances were just not successful.

Too many of the set-piece speeches were clumsily political, and even when characters were on hand to balance things.

For example, Phil Davies was excellent as the vexed betting-shop owner, but his confrontation with Chloe was rendered as some sort of sub-Socratic dialogue.

It didn't work, despite the obvious skill and effort and passion writer Jimmy McGovern put into it.

Still, I could have forgiven Broken all of that sort of stuff were it not for a final scene, which saw some of his congregation repeatedly utter the mantra "you wonderful priest" to Father Michael as he dished out the wafers at Holy Communion.

As someone brought up to believe in the Catechism literal truth of transubstantiation, which is that you are literally putting a sliver of the body of Christ in your mouth during Mass (a disturbing thought for an eight-year old fussy eater), I can believe most things, but I really couldn't believe that final scene.

It was, frankly, ridiculous.

Up to that point, Father Michael had functioned as a sort of semi-credible cross between Mother Theresa and Dennis Skinner, but this is when all the tendentiousness and sentimentality just went absurd.

The Mass is ended, go in peace.

Belfast Telegraph

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