“It seemed a good idea at the time” has been an excuse for many people, and television is no exception. FromThe Borgias to Celebrity Wrestling, producers and commissioning editors have used it to justify all sorts of atrocities committed against the tastes of the viewing public.
Which helps to explain just how The Story Of God ended up being presented by Robert Winston. To their credit, the BBC have been making some interesting popular documentary series in recent years, and the idea of killing two birds with one programme and fulfilling both their public service and religious programming on Sundays remits by ‘doing God’ must have appealed to senior figures all the way up to Michael Grade. Of course, any documentary series like this needs to follow in the footsteps of its classic forebearers and have one central authority figure to tell us what we need to know. But, while previous documentary series made unlikely television stars of Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski and Simon Schama, instead of taking someone with a knowledge of theological history and giving them a crash course in how to talk to camera, the reverse approach was taken with Robert Winston being sent round the world to give us what’s effectively Comparative Religion For Dummies.
It was very visually interesting, filling the screen with colourful visits to Hindu celebrations in India and the Zorastrian Towers Of Silence in Iran, but lacked the driving narrative a more involved presenter/author could have given it. Instead, we got Winston moving swiftly around the world, seeing different sights and then giving us a basic overview of various religious traditions coupled with a half-baked attempt to draw them together into a consistent whole. It’s an approach that’s failed in the hands of people more confident in the subject, and didn’t really work any better in the hands of an amateur.
Later in the week, Channel 4 produced a much more interesting view on religion, sending Robert Beckford – an academic with a track record of producing interesting documentaries about religion – to discover The Real Patron Saints travelling between the British Isles and the Middle East to discover the stories behind Saints George, Andrew, David and Patrick and what they mean for national identity today. While it occasionally threatened to devolve into the banality of a travelogue, Beckford – unlike Winston – had a story to tell about the way the religious societies of the past had adopted saints to reflect their supposed national characteristics and how those figures had become images of national identity in the unsure, partly post-religious present. By itself, the section on Saint George and how this probably non-existent martyr had become not just a symbol of identity from Catalonia to Moscow but was also mentioned in the Koran should be compulsory viewing for anyone who thinks singing ‘Keep Saint George in my heart, keep me English‘ makes any sort of sense of all, but the sections on the other three were just as interesting, especially how both Protestants and Catholics in Ireland claim Saint Patrick.
On a more banal level, it’s possible that Space Cadets also seemed a good idea at the time it was commissioned, hopefully when the editor in question got carried away with the idea of Johnny Vaughan being strapped to a rocket and blasted into space, far away from any TV cameras and sparing us his habit of emphasising. every. word. he. speaks. as. if. almost. every one. is. a. seperate sentence. and amongst the profound thoughts ever issued by mankind, instead of just more tedious drivel pouring out of his mouth-spout in an unstoppable flood. It’s the sort of Rabblemock HaHa Time programme that TV Go Home used to create before it metamorphosised into Zeppotron TV…who are the producers of Space Cadets. Satire just ate itself, and we’re left to watch the detritus as a horde of executives pat themselves on the back at finding people even more stupid and self-obsessed than themselves and trying to persuade them that they’re going to go into space. Part of me hopes that Vladimir Putin will declare this to be an insult to the very real achievements of the Russian space programme and dig up the co-ordinates for the former US air base it’s being filmed at from the Kremlin archives.
It might be good for all of us – otherwise, the prospect of someone thinking Johnny Vaughan’s the obvious choice to present the BBC’s next big documentary series is far too chilling to contemplate.