TV UK, 10

An Easter documentary suggests that Moses and St Paul were suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy.

Dolan Cummings

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The Easter egg adverts have been running for weeks now, always a reliable sign that the otherwise shifty holiday is coming up. Good Friday is on the 18 April, Easter Sunday is on 20 April and then it’s Chocolate Monday.

As usual, there is not much in the way of religious programming, though BBC1 offers ‘The Crucified King’, a sort of TV essay on the significance of Martin Luther King’s faith (Good Friday at 10am). This is a good idea, since as the title suggests, King’s assassination has taken on an almost religious significance of its own. More generally though, religion seems pretty alien to contemporary society. (No, I don’t consider contemporary Islam or Christian conservatism to be of much religious significance, but that’s a whole other TV column.)

The prevailing attitude to religion is captured in Horizon – God on the Brain (BBC2 Thursday 17 at 9pm), which explores the idea that belief in God can be explained biologically. Were Moses and St Paul suffering from temporal lobe epilepsy? Does religious faith have its own ‘areas of the brain’? It just goes to show that religion doesn’t have a monopoly on stupid ideas.

There is of course a perfectly respectable science of consciousness, and a noble tradition of people struggling to understand what it means to be human. Alan Yentob’s three-part series on Leonardo begins on Easter Sunday (BBC1, 7pm). Since Leonardo was the original Renaissance Man, the making of the programme involved producers from the BBC’s science and arts departments. The programme is based around dramatic reconstructions, with the man himself played by Mark Rylance, whose agonised, searching expression makes him look like that odd religious guy from the 1990s band James.

But Yentob himself drives the narrative, and as well as giving us a smattering of art history, he asks a group of ‘Leonardo loonies’ to try out some of the master’s famous designs for parachutes, flying machines and underwater apparatus. It’s worth sticking with this until the final episode, which brings everything together by presenting the Mona Lisa as a synthesis of all Leonardo’s expertises.

As a whole, the series does well in generating a sense of excitement around Leonardo’s achievements, and even more, his aspirations. I have my reservations about dramatic reconstructions in general, though. In this case they add to the sense that the Renaissance is a moment that has passed, and can only be glimpsed as history, in much the same way that Walking with Cavemen tries to capture that 2001 Moment. It’s true, of course, that the Renaissance happened at particular times in particular places, but are our own times really so enlightened that there is no room for a new generation of Leonardos?

Celebrity Shag Match (Sky One, Easter Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 11pm) offers hope to us all. Actually, I’m still not convinced this is a real programme and not an elaborate hoax, but that doesn’t really matter. It brilliantly captures the jaded irony that pervades much of British TV. It’s sort of Top Ten meets heat magazine, but I needn’t go into the details: just feel the title.

Of course, Leonardo did offer his services as an inventor to the military, and it might be that contemporary Leonardos are working on morally reprehensible TV formats. They certainly aren’t in Iraq.

Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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