The God slot

Television - BBC1's new series is flash and filmic, but is it truthful, wonders Andrew Billen

There is no BBC God slot as such any more, but in the old days being pushed into it meant only one thing: you had a fine future behind you. You might survive, flourish even, in your retirement home, but there was no going back to the secular hustle-bustle of your youth; Religious Affairs was the Bournemouth from which no correspondent returned.

In my time, Gerald Priestland has made the one-way journey on radio and Joan Bakewell on television. Brian Redhead planned the ultimate translation, from Today presenter to parish priest, but died first. Most recently, Mark Tully left his post as the BBC's India correspondent in protest, after the corporation muffled his attacks on John Birt, and in no time was picked up by its ever-Christian RE department. His four-part BBC1 series The Lives of Jesus went out on Sundays in December 1996, and he may still be heard very early, or very late, on Sundays on Radio 4, hitting the soft God spot on Something Understood.

Jeremy Bowen and his three-part Son of God (Sundays, 9.10pm, BBC1) flouts the pattern. Bowen is a still-rising star, the anointed one flown back from his foreign correspondent's berth to present BBC1's relaunched Breakfast, where he sits glumly next to an ice maiden paid rather less than him. Although this appointment now looks like cruel miscasting, the BBC still has hopes for Bowen as an anchor. His ladykiller looks cannot be allowed to go to waste. The very fact that he was to host Son of God suggested, therefore, that it was going to be racy stuff, and it was. With its exciting computer regenerations of lost cities and a first-century Jewish skull ("Is this the face of Jesus?"), its actorly re-enactments, its Radio Times cover and kamikaze scheduling opposite London's Burning on ITV, this series has more in common with Walking with Dino-saurs than with Tully's discreet effort of five years back.

Bowen began in his old posting. He wanted us to know that, after five years covering the Middle East from the Holy Land, he was no more religious, only more aware of the "giant shadow" cast by the events of 2,000 years ago. As if anxious to make his return there seem a little more like the good old, bad old days, he kept telling us that first-century Jerusalem and Galilee were just as "bloodstained and divided" as when he covered them, "a hotbed of religious and political discontent". Soon Bowen was piloting his own helicopter to Caesarea and driving a jeep to Nazareth. We will hear, mark my words, shells explode before Lent is out.

Tully, in his gentlemanly way, felt he did not have to make a choice between myth and history. Bowen and his director, Jean-Claude Bragard, go for history against spirituality every time, and have already upset one of their own consultants, Canon Tom Wright, who told the Sunday Telegraph that the programme has ignored JC's conviction that God was about to inaugurate a new kingdom on earth. Christ, he complained, emerged as a "politically correct social worker". But that criticism aside, if Bowen is going to make good his opening claim that "remarkable discoveries of science, archaeology and history" prove that the Gospels "got the essential facts of Jesus's life story right", he will have to be more rigorous than he was in the first instalment.

His argument proceeded by way of sentences such as "I didn't have to travel far to find strong evidence that he probably was" (note the conjunction of "strong" with "probably"). The evidence in question was that Jesus had been born in a cave. And why did that need to be proved? Because Bowen wanted to believe that the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem really did mark Christ's birthplace, even though it was the site of neither an inn nor a stable. But aha, 30 miles from Bethlehem, people still use caves to stable their animals, and "inn" was, waddyaknow, a mistranslation of "upper room". Ergo, Joseph had relatives in Bethlehem and Mary and he were staying downstairs in their stable/ grotto when Christ was born. Ergo, Luke's gospel was right (sort of).

Soon Bowen had convinced himself that the star of Bethlehem was an astrological phenomenon, that the three wise men were horoscope compilers from Persia, and that they stopped off in Petra to buy frankincense and myrrh. (Bowen irrelevantly bought some himself there.) This method of collating little-known "facts" and finding that, hey presto, they fit a pre-existing myth reminds me of the way Graham Hancock, in his disreputable The Sign and the Seal, "found" the Lost Ark of the Covenant.

Near the end of the programme, Bowen slept rough in a cave on the Mount of Temptation above the River Jordan, contemplating his career - I mean, Christ's period in the wilderness. Waking up, he concluded that Jesus may have spent 40 days and nights there, deciding not to mount an armed rebellion against the Romans. With coming episodes suggesting that Jesus turned himself in at Gethsemane and drugged himself to appear dead on the cross, there will be plenty more speculation where that came from. This programme is flash, filmic, even gripping. Bowen has a journalist's relish for a story. As regards historical truth, however, it's about as gospel as the Gospels themselves.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2001 issue of the New Statesman, Duel for the Tube