Essays: Moses hits the dirt |
[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]

Moses hits the dirt

AND Moses went up into the mountain, and he croaked. Thus ended Moses — the Lawgiver (ATV), just before it got really interesting.

So we never saw the Canaanites being slung out of Canaan. All we saw was Burt Lancaster promising his people yet another forty-year stretch in the wilderness. He and his generation had looked upon the promised land but were doomed never to set foot in it. Their transgressions had been too great. Not that Moses hadn’t done his best to punish these. Manufacturers of the golden calf were obliged to melt it down and drink it, with deleterious results. Two characters who had broken the Sabbath by picking up twigs were stoned to death on the Lawgiver’s orders. Their relatives thought this penalty harsh, but Moses was immovable. However hostle they might become, the Children of Israel must respect the Law, or they would never get to see the fertle land.

‘When will father be coming? I want to see him,’ pleaded one of Moses’s offspring. ‘He’s very busy,’ was the reply. ‘He has Israel to look after.’ Even at the nadir of his popularity, the Israelites still crowded round the Lawgiver to ‘see construction’, meaning seek instruction. At times like these he was wont to call them ‘my foolish children.’ Despite the unavoidable anachronism of a set of teeth whose fearful symmetry has been reflecting the sunlight like a heliograph since he first leapt to fame as the Crimson Pirate in 1952, Burt did a reasonable job of impersonating a patriarch.

His authoritative presence was reinforced by miracles. Dathan, a rat-faced heckler who had been stirring up trouble from the beginning of the series, was finally obliterated by a special effect. As a follow-up, Moses clobbered the Israelites with the aforesaid 40 years additional sentence. It was becoming increasingly hard to see why anybody should put up with him even for 40 minutes, but before his credibility ran out there was just time to get him back up into the hills for a farewell chat with God.

The fact that God also spoke in Burt’s voice permitted the charitable conjecture that Moses had been mentally disturbed all along. Some gory flashes-forward suggested that Operation Canaan would nevertheless proceed on schedule. Burt hit the dirt. The titles rolled. It had not been a compassionate series. Nor is the Old Testament. The show was remarkably true to the spirit of the book — hence the chill.

Compassion came later in human history. Jimmy Reid personifies it. On Opinion (Granada) he gave us a cracking sermon about the obscenity of supposing that the Welfare State has achieved its objects and that poverty has disappeared. Reid has a finely developed idea of what society should be like. In some respects his vision of the good life outstrips his political theory. Too concerned with freedom to believe in absolute justice, and too concerned with justice to believe in absolute freedom, Reid is in a dilemma. But if it does nothing else, his mental turmoil makes him a breathtaking preacher.

‘Far have I come, pursued by stormy weather,’ sang The Flying Dutchman (BBC2). This was the second showing of a production which I had been lucky enough to miss on the first occasion. For some reason several critics had gone on record as believing it to have been television magic. Actually it was the kind of thing that gives opera a bad name. Just when the increased use of subtitles is beginning to give the viewing public a chance of overcoming the one big stumbling block that lies between them and the glories of the international operatic repertory, somebody puts back the clock by giving us Wagner in English. But what kind of English? ‘My blood runs cold with nameless terror.’

Not having heard about Moses snuffing it, Magnus Magnusson was still pounding around the Biblical landscape in BC (BBC2). This has been an enjoyable series, but Magnus seems to have put less time into the script than into booking airline tickets. Calling the Ten Commandments a ‘social contract’ was not only vulgar but confusing, since it explained the intelligible in terms of the unintelligible. But the latest episode, dealing with the Philistines, was full of stirring news. It appears that the Philistines, far from being arid materialists, were deeply artistic, with a terrific line in pottery. Proof of this talent was abundantly forthcoming. Boy, could they pot. Once again, the Bible had got it all wrong.

‘This was the sort of pillar that Samson is alleged to have pulled down,’ said Magnus, bracing himself against a remain. Magnus demonstrated how the pillars in a Philistine temple stood at just the right distance apart for a man of Samson’s presumably above-average dimensions to bring it crashing down on 3000 occupants. The only drawback to the story is that a Philistine temple, according to overwhelming archaeological evidence, was about the size of a modern living room. Which means, as far as I can see, that, at a generous estimate, he, Samson, wiped out 30 people — i.e., one-hundredth of the accredited total.

Introducing an item about architectural follies on Nationwide (BBC1), Frank Bough used the ‘I dunno’ technique. ‘I dunno what a folly is. Bob, what do you think a folly is?’ Whereupon Bob Wellings chimed in with the equally reliable ‘we asked’ routine. ‘Well, Frank, we asked an architectural expert what a folly is, and he told us what a folly is.’ If these hallowed gambits are still found useful by Nationwide, perhaps they should be employed with equal vigour in other formats. Magnus, for example, might benefit from such an approach. ‘I dunno what a Philistine is. Professor Moshe Bagelheim of Tel Aviv University, what do you think a Philistine is?’ ‘Vell, Magnus, ve asked...’

Of the American fuzz operas currently on offer, Serpico (BBC1) is easily the best. The real Serpico moved in a world where all the cops were bent except him. The fictional Serpico has a few good men on his side. On the other hand, no woman is against him. The real Serpico was a romantic, but surely not that romantic. Still, this is the story of a true hero, and stories of true heroes always grow in the telling. They pull down temples the size of telephone booths on the heads of three sensitive potters and by the time the book comes out there are 30,000 victims.

As for our own police, their ranks have been savagely thinned by the removal of Frank Windsor from ‘Task Force’ to a new school series called Headmaster (BBC1). The plot — dedicated older teacher passed over for top job — has worked before and might well work again. In its earlier incarnation it was called ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips.’

Distressed viewers have written asking what to do now that ‘Bouquet’ is off the air. Don’t try to compensate with alcohol or drugs. Lie down, keep warm and wait for ‘The Brothers’.

The Observer, 27th February 1977

[ A shorter, edited version of this piece can be found in The Crystal Bucket ]