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20 December 2013


NO DOUBT the makers of The Bible, the blockbuster that has swept the United States and is now showing on Channel 5 on Satur-day evenings, hoped that it would inspire viewers to hie their way to the nearest church to find out more.

The best I can offer is that it may well drive the more thoughtful to dip into our Holy Book to reassure themselves that our extended salvation myth is not quite so God-awful as it is herein portrayed.

The underlying approach is fundamentalist: the Bible is essentially history, and can be dramatised in a coherent sweep, presented as though the camera were recording real life. This version proves decisively the wrongheadedness of such a view.

The series achieves continuity by means of a voice-over narration, sometimes skipping centuries to get to the next juicy bit. Taken as a whole, it portrays the Old Testament God as capricious and vengeful: the heart of the story a matter of blood and destruction - exactly what we have preached against all these decades.

It is symptomatic that the Babylonian exile was illustrated entirely by the book of Daniel, that non-historical collection of dubious apocalyptic legend. The glories of second and third Isaiah were entirely ignored. The dialogue made up to plaster over the gaps left by the sacred authors is of hopeless, sometimes risible, quality; the archaeological and dramatic detail imported to add verisimilitude feel like patches on a garment rather than seamlessly woven in.

Matthew and Luke's birth narratives are conflated without any engagement with the actual texts; so the Magi turn up two minutes after the shepherds. Yet, despite everything, the scene in the stable was genuinelymoving.

Our religion as the source of bloodshed and massacre was amply demonstrated in Simon Sebag Montefiore's magnificent Byzantium (BBC4, Thursdays). The wonderful scale of Constantine's imperial city, the glories of Greek Orthodoxy - all were undercut by the jealousy and rivalry between Eastern and Western Christianity, culminating in the brutality of the Crusades, when European followers of the Prince of Peace subjected the holy city to an orgy of destruction and murder.

The story's nadir, when the city eventually fell to the hordes of Islam in 1453, ushered in, by contrast, a time of tolerance and diversity, making the city, by this account, "the refuge of the world".

A homegrown version of decadence and indulgence was on show in ITV's splendid drama Lucan (Wednesday of last week). The 1974 murder of Lucan's nanny is recreated in stylish detail. In this version of the mystery, the Earl is a blackguard, resorting to murder when his campaign to drive his wife mad failed. Behind him, though, stood the sinister figure of John Aspinall, spouting rot about the imperative for alpha males to assert their dominance, while all the time in his Mayfair casino deliberately fleecing British aristos such as Lucan of their inherited wealth.

I do not know how historically accurate all of this is: the trick that part two will need to pull off is to sustain our interest in, and concern for, such desperately unattractive characters.

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