The Weekend's Television: The Bible: A History, Sun, Channel 4
Seven Ages of Britain, Sun, BBC1
Still holier than thou
Monday 08 February 2010
"We've departed from the law of Moses," said Ann Widdecombe sternly at the beginning of The Bible: a History.
Staring dyspeptically out of a taxi window at alfresco drinkers and glossy shop windows she made it pretty plain that the question she'd just posed about the Ten Commandments was seeking the answer "yes": "Would our nation be better off if we lived by them today?" And, if you think of the Ten Commandments as just one version of a universal human instinct about morality, it would be hard to contradict her. Less killing, less betrayal and so on. Who could complain? It's if you think of the Ten Commandments as divinely inspired that you begin to run into difficulties, the first of them, ironically, being the question of why Ann Widdecombe herself has departed from the law of Moses. She doesn't worry too much, after all, about the 613 Jewish laws that came as a banded pack with the Decalogue. Perhaps she thinks of Jesus as having an exemplary attitude to red tape, slashing away petty legislation in order to improve moral efficiency. Perhaps she has another explanation. But she didn't share it here and it made you wonder why she thought some God-given laws were sacrosanct while others could be dispensed with.
That Widdecombe is some kind of literalist in this matter seems plain. She got very breathless on the summit of Mount Sinai, and not only because she'd laboured all the way up on foot. "This was the place where God gave us his law," she said reverently, as if she could see in her mind's eye the divine digit spelling out the words. And she got very rattled and huffy when she met a biblical scholar who gently pointed out that Moses almost certainly hadn't written the first five books of the Bible and that there was absolutely no archeological evidence for the Exodus of the Jews. "Well I have to say that smacks to me of 'Let's disregard the whole of the Old Testament because it talks about God,'" Widdecombe snapped. It didn't. It smacked of human reason, though I know that isn't always welcome in these matters.
Widdecombe didn't come off worse in all her encounters. Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry, brought in to put the atheist case, got self-defeatingly enraged by the notion that the Ten Commandments might offer useful moral guidance, particularly since they themselves made the point that virtually all of them are moral truisms. Astoundingly, they managed to make her look almost open-minded. And an Aunt Sally psychologist made a fatuous half-hearted case that covetousness could be a thoroughly good thing. But neither of those encounters could mask the holes in Widdecombe's muddled reverence. At one point, for example, she approvingly described the back-to-basics Puritanism of a Dorchester divine who established a kind of Sharia regime in the early 17th century, neatly sidestepping the fact that he would have regarded all Roman Catholics as flagrantly in breach of the Second Commandment. And if "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, nor any likeness of anything" is not to be taken literally – as Vatican chop-logic insists – then why should any of the others? Incidentally, anyone interested in the skills of textual exegesis that have caused such problems for a literal understanding of Exodus might be interested in a jolly bit of visual marginalia that cropped up towards the end of Widdecombe's film. The main text was her – inveighing against moral relativism as she stood in a busy street. The addendum was a passing young woman, who jabbed a thumb contemptuously at Widdecombe as she passed and then made the universal gesture for "doolally", circling her index finger at her temple as she walked away. The cameraman saw it and didn't suggest a retake. Then the director and the editor saw it – many times over – in the editing suite. And they left it in. I think that's what you call scriptural commentary.
David Dimbleby's Seven Ages of Britain is son et lumière television, full of heritage pomp and artful chiaroscuro and tiresomely obedient to certain clichés of telly historiography. If it's dark you'll hear owls hooting; if it's light and you're anywhere near a churchyard you'll hear ravens cawing mournfully. But the series does show you some very beautiful and interesting things. In Munich, Dimbleby gazed in entirely appropriate wonder at the only surviving royal crown from Richard II's massive spending spree on monarchical bling, an astonishingly lovely piece of Plantangenet metalwork. And in the National Gallery, he zoomed in close on the Wilton Diptych to pick apart its artfully constructed claim to divine right, from the white hart badges on the angels to the tiny reflected image of England in the boss of the English standard. Like Exodus and Genesis long before it, you realised, the painting was half moral aspiration and half a set of forged title deeds, conveniently backdated and with God's signature as witness filled in by man.
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