The Weekend’s TV: The Bible (Channel 5)

A Life of Brian take on the Bible doesn’t prove to be a revelation

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The Independent Culture

Let’s gingerly sidestep 2,000-plus years of interpretive controversy and say only this: the Holy Scriptures certainly contain some ripping good yarns, don’t they?

The Bible, a new five-part series from the producer of The Apprentice (US), brings these stories to a TV audience. Predictably enough, it was a massive hit in the US, where, worryingly, it aired on the History Channel.

We can attribute the high ratings in part to a controversy surrounding the Moroccan actor Mohamen Mehdi Ouazanni, who plays Satan and also happens to look a bit like US President Barack Obama. The producers insisted that talk of a resemblance was “utter nonsense”, but it can’t have hurt ratings in the red states.

We didn’t see much of Satan/Obama in episode one, sadly. With the ruthless efficiency of a Hollywood script doctor, “Beginnings” skimmed over Creation (too wordy), the Garden of Eden (too much nudity), and Noah’s Ark (too “Titanic: the Sequel”), before taking up its tale with Abraham, his wife, Sarah, and his bit on the side, Hagar. No wonder: this is an archetypal story of social ambition and sexual jealousy for the ages, as any viewer of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills will tell you.

This is this show’s impossible challenge: to entertain a general television audience, without offending the fundamentalist Christians to whom such a series would most likely appeal. Several US reviewers criticised the addition of the “ninja angels” who laid waste to Sodom, and the omissions are just as interesting. You may recall that disturbing passage of the Bible in which a mob of Sodomites descend on Lot’s home demanding to rape the disguised angels he has given shelter. Hospitable Lot not only refused, but offered up his own virgin daughters in their place. There was none of your un-PC stuff here.

If you want pageant and scandal, stick with Cecil B DeMille, because in the main this adaptation erred on the side of tasteful understatement, an approach that occasionally backfired. Many of the actors were chosen from London theatre, for instance, “to avoid distracting the audience with recognisable celebrities”. Of course, one country’s unrecognisable nobody is another’s beloved soap star. As well as several faces from Game of Thrones, it was amusing to see that Kierston Wareing, who plays treacherous trollop Kirsty Branning in EastEnders, will be popping up as Delilah. Such a variety of British regional accents in a biblical Canaan also resulted in a few unintentional Life of Brian moments. Never mind Obama as Satan, where is it written that God is a Glaswegian? 

Perhaps the producers should have considered Charlie Brooker for “Voice of God”. He’s developed a distinctive narrational style since he started presenting TV and his sardonic segues were the main draw of How Videogames Changed the World on Channel 4 last night. Sometimes, they were the only thing separating this two-hour documentary from those Noughties nostalgia clip shows which, thanks in part  to Brooker, it’s now fashionable to disdain.

Does anyone still think videogames are just for spotty teenage boys? If so, the assembled talking heads did a solid job of explaining their wider cultural impact (hint: they’re also for middle-aged men). Not only did videogames save us from the monotony of Seventies television (“a choice between a documentary about bricks or Jimmy Savile”, according to Brooker), they introduced the Japanese concept of cuteness or “kawaii” (Pac-Man), illuminated the human brain’s love of attrition (Space Invaders) and reflected Thatcherite economics (Elite). I’ll also take the inclusion of Labour MP Tom Watson, talking here about arcade games, as conclusive proof that he and Spaced actor Nick Frost are in fact the same person.