Grace Dent on TV: Noah in BBC's The Ark was great – as long as you didn't actually want animals or a flood

This telling is far more surreal and subtly hewn than the Biblical version

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The Independent Culture

Those who watched BBC1’s The Ark this week might have been reminded that many Biblical stories are, when scrutinised, a bit silly. Lovely messages, gripping plot twists, but for me, even as a six-year-old Sunday-school inmate, forming the Tower of Babel from Play-Doh, plot-holes were apparent.

Take, for example, Moses chatting to God in the form of a burning bush, just before the plagues of boils, hailstones and bugs. I’m not saying that this didn’t make a good life-sized mural when we painted it.

And what nicer way for children to spend the spring term than recreating the full horror of having one’s spleen sucked out by savage locusts? But it didn’t seem very Christian. Here we were being told to “turn the other cheek”, but this God bloke had a thoroughly nasty streak.

The story of Noah’s Ark is so brutal that, for cheeriness’s sake, most storytellers gloss over the genocide aspect completely, focusing instead on the terrific floating-zoo adventure. It is fair to say that during the story of Noah, God’s plans for Earth sound like the rantings of a drunken Ukip candidate, shortly before Nigel Farage has them removed from public view.

It was pleasing to see writer Tony Jordan depict Noah’s sons as flummoxed when faced with their father’s ark project. Surely, the sons asked, there were easier ways for God to express his grumpiness about Earth’s immorality than to drown everyone and start again?

Joanne Whalley and David Threlfall in The Ark (BBC/Red Planet Pictures/Sife Elamine)

Jordan’s Ark seemed to pose the question: “What would you do if your father started building a boat to save the world? Fetch a toolbox and start hammering? Or lock him in a barn until he stopped with the ‘end of the world’ claptrap?”

Noah’s son Kenan (Nico Mirallegro) reacted as many of us would: he went to the pub and got stuck in among the boozers, fornicators and ne’erdo-wells whom God was planning to drown.

As in Jordan’s previous Biblical epics, The Passion and The Nativity, the characters chattered away in mostly modern parlance. There wasn’t a cod-Shakespearian line or a gritty Bafta-baiting soliloquy to be heard. Noah’s sons had modern Everyman problems, such as how the heck to find a place to have sex privately with their wives when the whole extended family shared a house.


They skived off work to go ducking, diving and bombing in the local river. They sat at dinner  hatting, more like the cast of Carla Lane’s Bread than Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The Garden of Gethsemane, in Tony Jordan’s Bible, is somewhere off the M6 past Forton Services. The result, in my eyes, was completely charming.

Still, this telling was far more surreal and subtly hewn than the Biblical version. The BBC clearly lacked the budget to hire aardvarks, armadillos and anteaters by the pair, so instead we dwelt on Noah’s pre-cruise emotional journey. If Sky Atlantic had made The Ark they would have hired Ullswater, built the boat to scale and broadcast it in scratch ‘n’ sniff llama-dung smell-o-vision.

Only the BBC would ditch the actual flood, scrap all mention of the animals walking in two-by-two and, instead, broadcast 90 minutes of Frank Gallagher from Shameless sweating in a sand dune fielding celestial messages via Ashley from So Solid Crew. If you want a flood – The Ark seemed to say – watch Kevin Costner’s Waterworld. What, you’re here to see zebras? Jog on mate, this isn’t Madagascar II.

Instead, here was a story mainly about family strength, trust and loyalty. As viewers, we knew that the flood was coming. Noah’s sons did not. They helped build his ark mainly to support their father during what seemed to be his nervous breakdown.

Ashley Walters and David Threlfall in The Ark (BBC/Red Planet Pictures/Sife Elamine)

Noah’s wife (Joanne Whalley) was rather heartbreaking to watch, preferring almost to die supporting her husband’s folly than mock him. Eventually the flood came, in the final few seconds, when we saw the family on a hill pulling “phew, that was a close shave!” faces.

And, yes, it was all completely weird and nonsensical, but then so is the Book of Genesis. I’d argue that these big BBC Biblical bashes are almost perfectly pitched. Believers can look at them and mutter to themselves, “well this makes no sense but I have faith God knew what he was up to!”, while atheists can be thoroughly smug watching actors from Skins and Shameless leading the God brigade a merry dance.

Let’s hope that, next Easter, Jordan tackles more tales of God being a berk, like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, skimming over scenes of moral miscreants dying horribly in brimstone to give us instead gentle scenes filmed in Elveden Forest Center Parcs. Or Moses without the Ten Commandments, because licence-fee-quibblers would find carving the stones too expensive. God is in the details. Just not at the BBC.