There were two fabulous back-to-back programmes on BBC4 last night as part of its Books on the BBC season. First we had, by way of starters, Ancient Bibles, the first of four episodes in the Beauty of Books thread. Instead of spreading itself too thin – often a danger – we were shown just two tomes: the Codex Sinaiticus, written in Greek in about 350AD; and the Winchester Bible from the late 12C .
The Sinaiticus resides in the British Library. It comprises just the Gospels, it is unillustrated and laid out in plain four column format. The fascinating thing is the thousands of corrections that had been done on it, extremely neatly. No crossings-out, or deletions, hence a treasure trove for bibilical scholars. The book was kept for well over a millennium at the St Katherine’s monestary in Sinai (which I visited once: utterly inundated by tourists) until discovered (from a Western point of view) by a German scholar in the 19C. What wasn’t fully explained was how the thing ended up in the British Library. A pity. The Winchester Bible, commissioned by Henry, Bishop of Winchester, the brother of King Stephen, is an enormous book, created in over 10 years from the 1160s. It is quite simply one of the most stunning objects I have seen on TV. The illuminations, created by six different artists, clearly identified as being masters from the Continent and not England, are quite breathtaking. Something I did not know: a book is only considered to be “illuminated” if the pictures are properly embellished with either gold or silver.
But for me, the treat of the evening was what followed: the Birth of the British Novel. It was an hour long programme and not a second was wasted. Never leaving the 18C, presenter Henry Hitchings took us on a guided romp from Daniel Defoe with Robinson Crusoe through Swift, Fielding, Sterne, Burney, Walpole H. to William Godwin. I have not come across Hitchings before; his presentation is authoritative and unobtrusive, just how it should be. A host who realises he is the guide, not the star. Of all the authors covered, only Samuel Richardson – hitherto unfamiar to me – was given a bit of a kicking for being a perv and a sadist, although his contribution was acknowledged. Historical backdrop and context were fully explored. Locations were wonderfully exploited (including Strawberry Hill House and the Foundling Museum, joy of joys). Talking heads, such as Will Self, Martin Amis, Margaret Drabble, were intelligently yet sparingly probed.
And once again – as we see over and over – there intruded the industrious hand of a man who was at the nexus of all that mattered in mid-18C art and societal affairs, yet he wrote no novels: the mighty William Hogarth.
I found myself – having known a little about each of these pioneering Georgian writers – much, much better informed: equipped, ready and itching to read or re-read their works. What more could one ask from a programme?
So well done the Beeb. This is the stuff that justifies the licence fee.