Show Hide image

History's not what it used to be

This documentary assumes little or no knowledge on the part of the viewer

<strong>Christianity: a

I can't claim, by any stretch of the imagination, to be much of a Church historian, so it was with some surprise that I watched Michael Portillo's film about the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity early in the 4th century AD - perhaps the single most important moment in the Christian Church's two-thousand-year history - and learned not a thing.

Actually, this is not quite true. I learned that Michael Portillo, though perfectly adept at talking to camera while walking through ancient ruins, remains a charisma-free zone. Also, that he likes a nice pair of chinos, especially when matched with a dark blazer. But so far as Constantine and his clever and exceedingly slippery appropriation of the early Christians' faith goes, the only thing I know now that I didn't know before is that it is more than a little low-rent to call his biographer, Eusebius of Caesarea, his "spin doctor" in the hope that we, the viewers, will suddenly get all excited at how very, like, modern the big guy in Byzantium was. We will not. We will just feel patronised and irritated.

Why exactly Portillo was chosen to present this, the second film in Channel 4's supposedly weighty eight-part history of Christianity (Sundays, 7pm), is anyone's guess. He gamely tried to suggest that he'd landed the gig because he and Constantine have so much in common, but I wasn't buying this. That the good emperor was ever the politician, and that Portillo was, er, raised a Catholic (see: they are practically twins, albeit twins that were born some seventeen hundred years apart!) didn't seem to me to justify even remotely that the latter brought neither expertise nor narrative verve to what, in the right hands, is a pretty spicy story.

I cherish this period in Church history, for what's not to like? Alpha male (Constantine) takes a strange, heretic religion, some of whose followers like to sit atop pillars for years at a time, and makes it seem not just half-way normal, but sensible: a means, ultimately, of justifying everything from slave-owning to war-mongering. Spread the Good News, indeed (it was Constantine who got the Gospels copied and, more significantly, edited). Here, however, this whole revolutionary caboodle was reduced to a more than usually plodding collection of talking heads and dusty amphitheatres. A low point: to illustrate the febrile marketplace atmosphere of key pagan towns such as Ephesus pre-Christianity, Portillo could be seen hammily mock-bartering with a Turkish purveyor of tourist tat.

Like everyone, I am dying to see the last film in the series, which will be presented by Cherie Blair and is about the future of Christianity - will she be seen haranguing some friendly TV priest about the difficulties of diaphragms? I do hope so. However, Christianity: a History, only two parts in, is already well on its way to being a huge disappointment. The trouble is that it is so extraordinarily basic, taking so very little knowledge on the part of the viewer for granted; and also, rather than being authored by one engaging historian, it is presented by eight different and not-terribly-interesting "British personalities", including - this is so predictable, I could cry - Ann Widdecombe. (She gets to do the Reformation, and all I can say is that I do hope she will present it while sitting aloft a comfortable Puritan spike.)

Result? While the series may be vaguely handy for A-level religious studies students - assuming that Christianity is still on the syllabus, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if it wasn't - as controversial polemic goes, it is up there with your local parish magazine: a recipe for simnel cake and a list of poorly pensioners would be more gripping. This is not entirely the film-makers' fault. Perhaps they are simply more willing than I to accept that almost no one gets taught the Bible anymore - a fact that excludes them not from the Word (I don't believe in Him), but from fully understanding so much that is beautiful and enthralling: from our music, poetry and architecture, from all the things that make life more bearable.

Pick of the week

A Short Stay in Switzerland
25 January, 9pm, BBC1
Julie Walters plays Anne Turner, who ended her own life after being diagnosed with an incurable illness.

Generation Kill
25 January, 10pm, FX
From the creators of The Wire: a drama about the invasion of Iraq.

Chickens, Hugh and Tesco Too
26 January, 9pm, C4
Hugh FW's crusade against cruelty.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 26 January 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Nixon went to China... Will Obama go to Iran?