Television Review

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EQUINOX'S documentary about the 10 Plagues of Egypt (C4) did not take an entirely conventional line in its depiction of scientists. Curtis Molloy, for example, a kind of intellectual matchmaker who brought together the many disciplines involved in "solving the mystery", was shown at one point juggling green plastic frogs - which he did competently enough to eke out a living on the sidewalks should he ever run out of research money. Other contributors appeared in gothic settings - a breeze would be blowing curtains through an open window or the camera frame would be weirdly skewed. There were stuttering montages of apparently unconnected images and also uncanny projections - in one, a mud house in Egypt provided the screen for magnified film of stable flies, a luminous infestation which overwhelmed the mundane architecture. More than just a dab of The X Files behind the ears, then, but there was a point to the style, besides the director having fun on a modest budget. Bill Eagles's film began with a Rabbi Avi Weiss insisting that the biblical account of the 10 plagues was a description of a real event. As it happens, his view was shared by Dr John Marr, a scientist who viewed the story as a "classic epidemiological puzzle". But obviously their perspectives differed - what for Rabbi Weiss was a historical instance of God's judgement against the oppressors of Israel, was, for Marr, a coloured version of events with a rational explanation. Rabbi Weiss was playing Mulder to Marr's Scully.

The explanation itself was both ingenious and plausible. When Moses turned the Nile to blood with a touch of his staff, he was the beneficiary of a bit of good timing - a toxic algal bloom killed the fish and turned the river red. A plague of toads, their eggs unculled by the fish, fled the poisoned waters to infest the Egyptians, and, when they died in huge numbers, there was nothing left to control a plague of midges (the biblical "lice" was a general term for insects) and stable flies. The midges carried African horse sickness and blue tongue, while the stable flies spread a disease called glanders, which left humans with boils. Next came a hail-storm (not unknown in the Middle East, as footage of three-foot drifts of hail in Jordan demonstrated), locusts and a three-day sandstorm, relatively easy pieces of the jigsaw which preceded the most difficult - the death of the first born. This, the scientists concluded, was the result of mycotoxins released from mouldy grain, contaminated by locust droppings and incubated by the fetid conditions in underground grain stores.

Plausible, as I say, but not entirely convincing - there was a sense here that questions would not be invited from the floor, just in case the attractive chain of catastrophes were broken. If the river was so toxic, for example, why did it not also kill the tadpoles before they could emerge? And why should first-born children and animals be particularly prone to the effects of poisoned grain? Where the biblical account supported the explanation, it was insisted on as corroborating evidence, where it didn't, it was passed over briskly - the three-day darkness was so intense, for instance, that people could not see each other inside their houses, which doesn't sound very like the result of a sandstorm. There was a paradox here, anyway - in contradicting the literal interpretation of the Bible (God got mad), the scientists were obliged to adopt Exodus as a kind of lab-book, literally true in its recording of symptoms, rather than a powerful piece of cultural propaganda, subject to its own exaggerations.

Still, there was a moral lesson to be derived here whichever way you took it - don't mess with Yahweh or don't underestimate nature. Recent outbreaks of these ancient curses helped to unravel the puzzle in the first place, a reminder that plagues are not safely confined to the Old Testament.