TV UK, 23 December

Finding joy in misery in the Shameless Christmas special.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

The Christmas special of Shameless (Channel 4, tonight at 10pm) opens with a beautiful and I think quite original image that perfectly captures the tenor of the programme.

A yellow stain appears on a bed of snow and spreads quickly, but you can’t work out where it’s coming from until you realise that Frank Gallagher (it must be) is lying drunk under the snow and wetting himself, peeing ‘up’. Sure enough, the dishevelled patriarch emerges after a few seconds, bemused and irritable. ‘That’s disgusting’, said the troll who lives on the sofa, but it laughed anyway.

The special has been heralded for some weeks by an impressive billboard campaign showing the Gallagher Christmas dinner as the Last Supper, with the long-haired Frank as Jesus. Admittedly the Last Supper is not strictly a Christmas image, but it’s Christian, right? There was a joke about this kind of iconic promiscuity in the Christmas special of Teachers on Tuesday night, when the religious studies teacher had to explain to the kids who were crucifying him that this was not an appropriate Christmas celebration. Shameless does at least end with a woman giving birth to a baby that isn’t her husband’s. Unfortunately for all concerned, it’s Frank’s.

The rest of the Shameless Christmas story is too ridiculous to recount. Suffice to say that the family and their neighbours pull together under adversity in that heart-warming way that the criminal classes have. Shameless is an example of one variant of the tendency I mentioned last week to find joy in misery, drawing on nostalgia for the sort of community the prosperous associate with the poor. This is as appropriate a setting as any for a Christmas story, since there’s always been a bit of that in Christianity, especially since the Victorians. (Think of Tiny Tim Cratchit – Gawd bless us every one!)

In Who Wrote the Bible? (Channel 4, Christmas Day at 8.30pm) Robert Beckford sets out to examine the extent to which not only the Christian message, but the Bible itself was written and rewritten long after Christ. Beckford is an academic theologian, but he is also young and black and sports dreadlocks, a detail that surely helped get this unsexy proposal past the commissioning editors. The important thing about his background, though, is that Beckford is a Christian, having been brought up in a devout black evangelical church.

From this perspective it matters whether the Bible is literally true and whether it really is the word of God. Unfortunately it matters much less to everyone else. Beckford starts the programme by saying that he needs to sort out once and for all whether he believes in the authenticity of the Bible, or whether he can come to some kind of accommodation with the evidence that the Bible was written by fallible human beings, but it is obvious, and hardly surprising, that his Christianity is already much more sophisticated than he is letting on.

Beckford’s investgation of the four conflicting sources of the Pentateuch will come as a shock to anyone who thought the Old Testament was a history book, but it is unlikely to unsettle the majority of Christians (or Jews), much less anyone else. Equally, the revelation that the Gospels were written generations after Christ and contradict each other (not unlike the overlapping versions of events in Channel 5’s US cop show Boomtown) is hardly new.

Given the alleged rise of Biblical literalism in the USA, perhaps Channel 4 thinks it’s striking a blow for secularism, but the radicalism of this project is dependent on a dogmatic interpretation of Christianity that is marginal at best, and if its adherents were susceptible to rational argument, they’d have succumbed long before now. Someone will be telling us next that Santa Claus is really your mum.

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