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This review is from: Divine Designs [DVD] (DVD)
Dr Paul Binski's fifteen-part series on Channel 5 (and reproduced here on DVD) charted the history of Christianity in this country from the time of the Norman Conquest by focussing on the churches themselves and the treasures they contain within. Thus, he starts at the ancient cathedral in the ancient capital of Winchester and ends with some late-twentieth century places of worship in London and Leicester. In between, he travels the country in his clapped-out old Volvo, wearing his Columbo-style raincoat. The pause button allows us time to explore what Binski is showing us in greater detail and at our own pace.
Each of the fifteen episodes - reproduced on DVD in chronological order - is in two parts, so Binski introduces us to at least thirty (actually thirty-three) of the country's great architectural and artistic treasures. I say `Christianity' for it is Christian churches that make up the vast bulk of the series, but Binski also explores sacred buildings of other faiths such as a synagogue, two mosques, as well as a Hindu and a Jain temple. And within the Christian tradition, as well as Anglican structures, he also looks at Catholic, Presbyterian, Greek Orthodox buildings too, but no Methodist chapels or Quaker meeting houses.
Binski has an engaging and loquacious style all his own, and he is a great gesticulator. He is seemingly forever gazing upwards; he is enthusiastic about his subject and this enthusiasm is infectious. He sounds and acts sometimes like Dan Cruikshank, but at least Binski has much of interest to tell us. And there are lots of "... this reminds us that ...". Unfortunately, attempts to make certain scenes appear impromptu often fail, and look much staged instead. In each programme he usually engages the incumbent to help explain certain features, although it is always quite clear that Binski has his own set agenda with the other person often being used as a mere foil. But where, instead of the incumbent, there is an art-historical expert (such as Gavin Stamp in Glasgow and James Campbell in a Wren church in London), then Binski allows his guest presenter more liberty to expand.
Many of the churches chosen for inclusion in the series are the usual suspects (Fountains Abbey, St Mary's at Fairford, King's College Chapel, St Giles's at Cheadle, etc), and the list of cathedrals is long (a total of nine). But there are also some churches featured of which I was unaware, such as the thatched All Saints' at Brockhampton, or St Helen's at Ranworth. A glance at a map will show that London and the Midlands appear quite often, but there are outliers in Glasgow, Yorkshire, Liverpool and Wells. (Alas, the ecclesiastical wonders of my own native Devon, where medieval rood screens the equal of the one seen in the series at Ranworth in Norfolk) do not feature.
Talking of Wells "reminds us that" it is not necessarily a series where no thinking is required. For example, Binski comments on the singing statues of the great west front of Wells Cathedral and how marvellously theatrical the effect would have been. But if this was the case, why was the concept not duplicated in other churches and cathedrals? I was also surprised that Binski did not seem to realise that the Catholicism of Liverpool's Anglican cathedral - all of the ironies that he cleverly points out - might have been aimed at appealing to the Irish Catholics of the city in an attempt to draw them away from their own cathedral. And was Binski feigning ignorance of Grinling Gibbons's carving technique at the Wren church of St Mary Abchurch?
This is a delightful series of vignettes that trace the history of ecclesiastical architecture and art across the centuries in this country. It can, of course, only scratch the surface of the subject, but Binski's enthusiasm may yet turn you into a church crawler yet!