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    Looking at film interpretations of the stories in the Bible - past, present and future, as well as preparation for a future work on Straub/Huillet's Moses und Aron and a few bits and pieces on biblical studies.

    Matt Page


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    Thursday, February 11, 2010

    The Bible: A History, Part 3

    Having previously dispatched Creation and Abraham, Channel 4's The Bible: A History finally arrived at The Ten Commandments on Sunday. Tory MP Anne Widdecombe was hosting this particular instalment - a call to return to the values of the Ten Commandments in our society today.

    Widdecombe's always been a quirky character. During the last Tory government she was unpopular for being something of a battleaxe and slated for her bad dress sense and terrible hair. Whilst I begrudged her politics I secretly admired the way she didn't seem to care too much about how she looked. In honesty, she just looked like a typical woman of her age, but as was the case with Susan Boyle, to appear "normal" in front of the TV cameras is apparently shocking.

    Anyway she held onto her seat and served for a while in the Shadow Cabinet before retiring to the backbenches. As the Labour government's popularity started to wane, her popularity has seemed to grow a little (albeit with a new hairstyle), and I was beginning to admire her, not least because, much as I disagree with many of her views, she practises what she preaches and seems to have integrity. It was no surprise that she was one of the few politicians to come up smelling of roses in the recent expenses scandal. Her Christianity has always been important too her and has seemingly shaped her views.

    The programme started with an overview of the Moses story, featuring some choice clips from DeMille's 1956 film. This was intercut with various commandments flashing up on screen and Widdecombe bemoaning how the Decalogue has slipped out of fashion in the last few years.

    Next up was an interview with Exeter University's Francesca Stavrakopoulou. She presented ideas such as the non-existence of Moses, the exaggerated numbers of Israelites in the Bible, and that the Torah may not have been written by Moses, but it was all disappointingly brief. Stavrakopoulou hadn't even had the chance to utter the words "documentary hypothesis" before Widdecombe dismissed her theories, brushing aside her arguments in manner that suggested she wasn't going to listen to a word of it.

    Widdecombe was similarly brusque with atheists Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry. The segment was introduced by footage from their recent Oxford debate, but quickly moved on to their one-to-one conversations afterwards. It's difficult to see what the programme makers were trying to do with this section. The major part of the Hitchens interview was taken from the end of their conversation, as he was quite literally walking out. Walking out rarely makes anyone look good, but including it and very little else it also made Widdecombe look bad. Was this the only part of the interview where she held her own even remotely?

    Fry was a slightly different matter. Widdecombe was never going to fair well against a national treasure such as Fry, but his familiar affability was largely absent. There was something distinctly odd about seeing the usually mild mannered Fry describing the law of Moses as "hysterical rantings" in a fashion that could be described as as both something of a rant and somewhat hysterical.

    But that said, Fry raised the better points. Yes, "Thou shalt not kill" is laudable, but the Ten Commandments are a mixed bunch. Widdecombe seemed to be pushing for them to be enshrined in law, but never acknowledged the potential difficulties this might involve. For example, how could "do not covet" be policed? And does Widdecombe really want a society where it is against the law to worship any God but the God of Christians and Jews? That is far more extreme than I could have imagined. Is this what she actually thinks or has she just not thought it all through?

    Interspersed with all this was some interesting background information regarding Alfred the Great basing the first English law on the commandments, and a 17th century Puritan revival in Dorchester, but again these segments seemed a little odd. I enjoyed hearing about Alfred but couldn't help wondering why the academic they wheeled out to discuss a fairly insignificant point was given quite so much time. And the Puritan revival story made me wonder again what, exactly it was that Widdecombe is hoping for. A return to Puritanism?

    If she's to get her wish then she is going to have to become a lot more persuasive than she was in this outing. I couldn't help but be reminded of a criticism levelled at another middle-aged woman similarly devoted to the Commandments from DeMille's 1923 version of The Ten Commandments. "You're holding a cross in your hand but you're using it like a whip."

    Lastly, for those interested, it would appear that Clayboy's Doug Chaplain broadly shares my opinion on this programme.

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    • At 3:56 pm, February 11, 2010, Anonymous Doug Chaplin said…

      Good point about the Hitchens walkout – it was very odd.

      I must say I'd love to see a real conversation between Stephen Fry and someone like Rowan Williams, which I suspect could be quite good-tempered and humorous – as well as in danger of going above all our heads!

    • At 8:35 pm, February 11, 2010, Blogger Juliette said…

      The West Wing did an episode once where Sam spent the whole episode complaining about some place that wanted the 10 Commandments to be their only laws - how you could police 'do not covet' came up a lot!

    • At 12:00 pm, February 12, 2010, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Thanks for your comments.


    • At 10:51 pm, February 21, 2010, Blogger Unknown said…

      I was severely disappointed by this episode since I've been looking forward to watching this series for quite some time. So far I've only been able to see episodes 1 and 3 since Channel 4 doesn't license their content to the States (at least online streaming content) so it's been near impossible to watch any worthwhile programming (I thoroughly enjoy the documentaries on Channel 4). But after watching this episode I'm not sure it's worth the trouble.

    • At 4:11 pm, March 19, 2010, Blogger Matt Page said…

      Sorry it's taken me so long to get around to replying to your message.

      I think that this was the weakest episode in the series, perhaps driven by Channel 4's desire/mandate to represent those in the margins.

      Hope you enjoyed the rest of the series (somehow)



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