The Weekend's Television: The Bible: A History, Sun, Channel 4
Rock & Chips, Sun, BBC1
24, Sun, Sky 1
Something to believe in
Monday 25 January 2010
"I aim to find a path between the fundamentalisms of atheism and religion," declared Howard Jacobson in the first of Channel 4's new series The Bible: a History.
Good luck with that, Howard, I thought, but I'm happy to watch you try. That's because a Jacobson television programme is always a pleasure to watch, the language considered and the image of those admonitory features offering such a refreshing contrast to the standard forms of telly seduction. Where most presenters beam at the lens, full of a Tiggerish excitement that they hope will prove infectious, Jacobson often looks out of the screen as though you've just spilled his drink and he's wondering whether to punch you. You know you've been invited to a fight and that it will be an interesting one.
The principal punchbag in this programme was Richard Dawkins, criticised by Jacobson for intemperately attacking certitude with a mirror-image certainty. I guess Dawkins's prose style riles Jacobson – its impatience and asperity with certain kinds of human folly. And one might point out (from a safe distance) that if you want to excoriate irascibility and fierceness of language, it might help to be a bit less tetchy and short fuse than Howard Jacobson. But then this was a writer's appreciation of the Creation story, from a man who understands that the Authorized Version reverberates through English prose and poetry, and isn't too worried that some people choose to take it literally.
Jacobson isn't a believer himself, but he does believe in belief, in the submission of the human mind to a story. For him, the invention of monotheism is an "extraordinary, radical idea" and the human need for absolutes is an engrained (and necessary) instinct. Which is a little surprisingly really, since what he was arguing for here was essentially a kind of tolerant polytheism, a world in which the truth isn't the jealously guarded monopoly of one deity but a peaceful competition in which the fittest might be expected to prevail. And, while he might want to tread a middle path between atheism and faith, it was noticeable that he said many things that would have been anathema to the devout, but virtually nothing that would have offended an atheist, except, perhaps, if that atheist was Richard Dawkins.
Rock & Chips was a strange affair, a 90-minute amplification of one of the running gags in Only Fools and Horses, that concerning Rodney's dubious parentage. All the old gang – Del and Trigger and Boycie – were on hand as schoolboys, but John Sullivan's drama was less interested in them than in the brief affair between Joanie, Del's mum, and Freddie "The Frog" Robdal, a career criminal, played here (naturally) by Nicholas Lyndhurst. Less interested, too, in straightforward sitcom than an unsatisfactory hybrid of classic Trotter cheekiness and something much more melancholy and heartfelt. The soundtrack was like an antique jukebox and there were some sly touches of period detail (a cigarette machine in a hospital waiting room), but the narrative's focus was blurred and the pacing weirdly off – quite a lot of the time you were well ahead of the drama and hanging around for it to catch up with you.
I wonder if Jack Bauer has ever seen Groundhog Day. It must speak to him. "Bye, sweetheart, I'll see you in about an hour," Jack told his daughter, who surely should know by now that it will be at least 24. Several dead assassins and a torched helicopter later, Victor revealed the less than startling news that they "have someone on the inside", but then went "gllarghhcch..." before he got the name out. The split-screen I commend most strongly is one between you and any television it's showing on.
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