Daytime TV: A world all too real

Gary Day on the Siberian Jesus, Omar Khayyam and the ever-present divide between the rich and the poor

April 8, 2010

Jesus has returned. But why to Siberia? Film-maker George Carey went to find out (True Stories: A Long Weekend with the Son of God, More4, Tuesday 30 March, 10pm). It was clear from the start that he did not believe that "God had come down to Earth". Now there's an expression worth pondering.

The tone was often sarcastic, the commentary sneering. But both were redeemed by George's assumption that viewers appreciated words like "emollient" and savoured provocations such as "belief is what we rely on when reason fails".

Arriving at Minusinsk station, a strip of grey in a concrete landscape, George waited for someone to "show him the way". He surveyed the wares of a couple of street vendors. One declared that Vissarion, as the Son of God is now known, must be divine because he had walked barefoot in temperatures that were 42 degrees below zero.

It took George about five hours to find him. He should consider himself lucky. Many people spend a lifetime searching without success. The master lived in a house specially built for him at the top of a hill by his disciples. Obviously they didn't know about his ability to withstand the cold because there were radiators in every room.

"I didn't die for people's sins," said the saviour, "no one can take away anyone's sins." This must have come as a shock to orthodox Christians. But before they could recover from that, it was also revealed unto them that they would not be just born again, but born again and again. Not so much Incarnation as Reincarnation.

What was his message for the world? That we must rid ourselves of our egos and live in harmony with Nature. "We rely far too much on technology," said Christ, whose mobile phone never stopped ringing.

But if you judge a religion by its results, this one has much to recommend it. People live in small communities, they build their own houses, grow their own food, use solar power and natural fertiliser. And they are happy. Even George was humbled.

Poet, philosopher and scientist Omar Khayyam was a Renaissance man before the Renaissance (The Genius of Omar Khayyam, BBC Four, Tuesday 30 March, 9pm). One of his many achievements was a solar calendar. The authorities were immensely grateful because the lunar one caused havoc with the collection of taxes.

Sadeq Saba's film was not just a biography of Iran's best-known writer, it was also a covert critique of the current regime. A musician, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, intimated that Iranians understood the subversive message of the Rubaiyat very well. All those references to wine and a godless universe. He tapped his nose conspiratorially.

There are at least 17 references to the grape in the Rubaiyat, whose title is simply the plural of ruba'i, a four-line verse. Wine is a source of joy and sorrow. Sadeq poured himself a large glass of red and gazed mournfully at us. At times it seemed we were watching an existential commercial for Shiraz.

Tony Briggs' contribution brought the work's translator, Edward Fitzgerald, startlingly to life. Fitzgerald acquired a copy of Khayyam's poem from his friend and possible lover Edward Cowell, a professor of Persian at Oxford. But Cowell departed for India, leaving Fitzgerald bereft. That, and his despair at his disastrous marriage to Lucy Barton, were responsible for the translation's melancholy air.

We may never have heard of the Rubaiyat if Celtic scholar Whitley Stokes had not been browsing outside a secondhand bookshop and noticed copies of the poem reduced from sixpence to a penny. Had he not stopped to look that day, the knowledge of how to gain Paradise on Earth would have passed us by.

"This is my house," said 13-year-old George, gesturing to a mansion in the distance (How the Other Half Live, Channel 4, 8 April, 9pm). It would take a day to walk from the front door to the end of the drive. Eleven miles away in a tiny terrace lives Cal, an ex-traveller with a barrel-load of law degrees. But instead of taking briefs, she's taking bets at Ladbrokes. Can't get pupillage you see, which all barristers need if they are to practise.

David, George's father, decides to help. A self-made multimillionaire, he asks his contacts to see what they can do. Nothing. He is outraged. "If she were a judge's daughter, there wouldn't be a problem," he hisses.

The problem with this show is that it is just so 19th century. Here are the rich, here are the poor. Those with more money than they can ever hope to spend are encouraged to spend a little of it helping the deserving poor to rise in the world. It may work in Dickens, but this is the real world. Which even Jesus said he doesn't want to think about.

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