Essays: Holy Moses |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Holy Moses

LORD GRADE’S multi-billion lire biblical blockbuster Moses (ATV), otherwise known as the Lew Testament, got off to a more dignified start than the wary viewer perhaps expected.

The preceding shows on the same channel might have been helpful in creating a religious mood. The tone of ITV’s Sunday has improved of late. Opinion (Granada) gave us an excellent think-piece by Catherine Carmichael, deputy chairman of the Supplementary Benefits Commission. One of a series of speakers invited to comment on Milton Friedman’s idea that the Welfare State undermines economic health by doing good at other people’s expense, Miss Carmichael persuasively argued that the Welfare State was something to be cherished. Eloquently composed (‘this last year of little grace’ was only one of her quietly ringing phrases), hers was a powerful sermon in the right spot.

‘Opinion’ was followed by Stars on Sunday (Yorkshire), which has improved out of sight since Robert Dougall took over, so that the intelligent consumer’s reaction is now merely ‘Yechh’ instead of ‘Yaagh!’ A man in a kilt sang ‘I’ll Walk Beside You’ with the voice of an animal in pain, but apart from that there was little to make you hate Christianity. So the portents were good for ‘Moses.’ Common reason might tell you that there can be no hope for a religious epic set up by Lord Grade, starring Burt Lancaster as Moses, filmed by an Italian crew under the aegis of RAI-TV (an outfit even more weak-kneed than ORTF), and scored by Ennio Morricone, the man who wrote the music for ‘A Fistful of Dollars.’ But common sense is sometimes wrong.

Apart from a flash-forward to reveal that this was a story about a man ‘who spoke to God in the high places’ — meaning, presumably. places even higher than the ATV boardroom — Burt himself did not bulk large in the first episode, which was the story of Young Moses. Played by Burt’s son, William, Young Moses looked hip, like the hero of ‘Zabriskie Point.’ But under the wily hand of the director, Gianfranco de Bosio, the Egyptian atmospherics surrounding the enslaved Israelites were plausibly evoked. Anthony Burgess was a help here. One of the three credited writers, he was obviously responsible for making sure that the added passages of dialogue did not fall too far short of the standard set by the Bible. Apart from the occasional rhubarb (‘Moses!’ ‘He’s Moses!’ ‘It’s Moses!’ ‘Who’s Moses?’ etc.) the lines did not jar.

The Egyptian extras laid into the Israelite extras with rod and lash. Pharoah’s hairless family looked authentically drained of life. Israelite babies were convincingly thrown into the Nile. The exteriors were beautiful and the interiors showed imagination without vulgarity. You can’t predict how things will hold up once Burt takes over, but as it stands ‘Moses’ is hot competition for BBC1’s ‘Wings’ and might even take your mind off the interpolated sales drive for the pint that thinks it’s a quart. ‘The body, the body that satisfies,/ It can’t be modest no matter how it tries.’ They can say that again, and they will.

By a miracle of timing, the Beeb launched a biblical series of its own only a few days later. A mega-documentary called BC: The Archaeology of the Bible Lands (BBC2), it is written and presented by Magnus Magnusson and on the strength of the first episode bids fair to be absorbing stuff. With the latest series of ‘Mastermind’ safely out of the road, Magnus is free to indulge himself with his special subject. As the interrogator in the highest rating quiz since the Holy Inquisition, Magnus is never really at ease. Where he wants to be is out there in the middle of the ancient action, lifting liths and taking a shufti at shards.

And now it has once again come to pass. After some uncredited visual references to Michelangelo’s version of the Creation, Magnus was to be seen stomping off into the trackless wastes, in search of the millennia of actuality which lay behind the Old Testament fables. Onward through Mesopotamia he tramped, through Jordan and through Turkey. Here was Uruk in Sumeria, cradle of civilisation and source of the oldest recorded myths. From sites like these came the ancient tablets on which were inscribed the early versions of stories which were to be changed and refined through the centuries, waiting for the day when Lord Grade would give them to the world.

Still, marginally, on religion, we turn briefly to The Disappearance of Aimee (BBC2), starring Faye Dunaway as Aimee Semple McPherson, the beautiful holy roller whose unexplained furlough at the height of her career might or might not have been occupied by an all-too-worldly love-affair. The Billy Graham of her day, she peddled a brand of simon-pure but noisily rhythmic salvation. Her worshippers thought she was Christ in skirts. Did she blow all that for a man? Or was she telling the truth when she claimed to have been kidnapped? The programme was in no doubt. Miss Dunaway was movingly good as someone who had not been able to resist the reality of love amongst all the unreality of uplift.

We were one of 14 countries taking Norma (BBC2) live from La Scala. The Eurovision Link had a bad case of the red flash zaps, so by the time the signal came through a domestic TV set, which in turn has the sonic fidelity of a dishwasher, Bellini’s gorgeous music had lost much of its oomph. But it was still a great occasion. despite the hideous decor, complete with the word NORMA spelt out across the front of the stage. (Lucky we weren’t seeing Monteverdi’s ‘Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda.’) Montserrat Caballé was bel canto incarnate. Combining the dramatic bite of Callas with the sweet bloom of Sutherland, she sounded like both those ladies squeezed into the one costume. She looked like it, too, but you can’t have everything.

There was an enjoyable revival of The Winslow Boy (BBC1), with Alan Badel in killer-driller form as the suave advocate and Michele Dotrice fetchingly reluctant to fall in love with him. As it should, the magnetism between these two characters electrified the plot. Arena: Cinema (BBC2) dealt well with ‘The Front.’ All concerned were usefully interviewed by Gavin Millar, who is to be commended for presenting this series with grip and pith.

The Observer, 23rd January 1977