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Consult the coracle

26 September 2014


IN THE Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival debate about religion on TV, which I discussed last week, the Channel 4 representative championed his continuing commitment to religious broadcasting by referring to The Real Noah's Ark: Secret History (Sunday of last week).

This must, alas, count as an own goal, reinforcing the opinions of all secularists. A multi-national production, it told the story of one man's dream - a genuine English eccentric, Dr Irving Finkel, the British Museum's expert on cuneiform. The recent discovery of a 1750 BC clay tablet in a London attic provided the earliest account yet of the construction of a giant vessel built to save representative samples of living creatures from a devastating inundation.

Dr Finkel is convinced that this was not a myth but a historical account, and persuaded experts from the United States to build a replica to prove his theory. Unlike the boat in Genesis, this was circular: a giant coracle, 68 metres in diameter. Expeditions were made to Iraq, where the clay tablet originated, to find that there was, until very recently, an immemorial tradition of making such coracles - except that they were about a 30th of the size. Could such a giant actually be made?

Well, we still do not know. The largest version anyone could be persuaded to try was 13 metres in diameter. The film followed the required trajectory of all such projects: setbacks, ending in eventual triumph. It did float - as long, that is, as powerful pumps worked like mad.

No one said a word about daring to put a single creature on board. The greater dishonesty lay in the film's implication that it was Dr Finkel's idea that the story reached the pages of scripture through Jewish contact with ancient Babylonian myth during the Exile: it is, actually, one of the most widespread tenets of Old Testament scholarship.

The experiment's significance, we were assured, lay in the centrality of the Ark story to the world's three great religions of the book; but this programme will only have infuriated literalists from all faiths, and added nothing to the understanding of anyone with a more critical attitude to scripture.

Educating the East End (Channel 4, Thursdays) continues the franchise of showing what life is like in supposedly ordinary inner-city schools. Last week, at Frederick Bremer School, Walthamstow, we followed the annual election of the head boy and head girl. We were informed that this process was all about self-belief, and that the canvassing would raise engagement with democracy.

Self-confident, loud-mouthed show-offs - the type that all teachers seem to prefer nowadays over those who actually read books and get their work done - would surely prevail; but no, the boy they elected was a rank outsider, quiet, churchgoing, funny, and passionate. It was all rather encouraging.

For a more cynical view of contemporary secondary education, I recommend the scabrous Big School  (BBC1, Fridays). Here, the pupils are trying their best - it is the teachers who are venal, half-witted failures. I imagine that it is a favourite in staff rooms up and down the country.

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