The Weekend's Television: The Bible: A History, Sun, Channel 4
Seven Ages of Britain, Sun, BBC1

Still holier than thou

"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.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
Arts and Entertainment
Ready to open the Baftas, rockers Kasabian are also ‘great film fans’
musicExclusive: Rockers promise an explosive opening to the evening
Arts and Entertainment
Henry VIII played by Damien Lewis
tvReview: Scheming queens-in-waiting, tangled lines of succession and men of lowly birth rising to power – sound familiar?
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hell, yeah: members of the 369th Infantry arrive back in New York
booksWorld War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
    World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

    Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

    The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
    Why the league system no longer measures up

    League system no longer measures up

    Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
    Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

    Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

    Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
    Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

    The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

    Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness