Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Quest For The Grail In Top Gear

The latest entry in the DVC-inspired grail-quest documentary genre, BBC’s Richard Hammond And The Holy Grail, initially sounded rather slight and even silly. For a start, it was a BBC1 rather than BBC2 production – on the BBC’s mass-entertainment channel rather than its more highbrow 2nd channel which normally hosts historical-inquiry documentaries. Secondly, it was hosted by the young ‘housewives favourite’ co-host of BBC’s car-test driving show Top Gear, Richard Hammond. Thirdly, Hammond’s advance-promo feature in the Daily Mirror (15-5-06) didn’t inspire confidence as he managed to refer to Da Vinci as ‘Da Vici’ and ‘Ad Vinci,’ adding the BBC gave him only two weeks to find the Grail. Fourthly, it was announced and publicised in January, scheduled again for showing the weekend of TDVC’s cinema release, and postponed again before being shown Whitsun Monday. (British TV networks run ‘specials’ for the millions forced to stay indoors by the traditionally rainy holiday-weekend weather.)
However in the event, it was not much different from other entries with a ‘lay person’ as the seeker of truth being guided along by unseen programme researchers. (For instance, ITV’s recently-rerun 2005 one-hour documentary The Grail Trail: In Pursuit of the Da Vinci Code, in which three young people travel by train to Rome and Paris to interview experts, including an Opus Dei rep). Hammond makes little attempt to be cute, and the initial snatch of the Indiana Jones march we hear is not repeated.
He starts in Istanbul, as the old capital of Christendom, Constantinople, for a visit to the St Sofia church and an enquiry about holy relics there. Then he tosses a coin to decide whether to follow the crusader route (unexplained) through Europe, or north to Britain. There, he visits London’s Temple Church for an interview with its now-famous Rector, who shows us the Templar effigies. Then it’s up (in his slinky vintage tourer) to Rosslyn Chapel, for a debunking of its Templar origin. So, inspired by the Arthurian Romances, it’s back on the road down to Glastonbury. There he visits the ruined Abbey, stumbles into a crop-circle symposium, and climbs Wearyall Hill, to no purpose. At the British Library he has a talk with Arthurian scholar Richard Barber (who is actually the programme’s historical consultant), who says the Grail came from the old French Romances. So we’re off to France, first to Paris (where TDVC is finally mentioned as the rationale for coming here) for a look at The Louvre’s glass pyramids and an interview with Simon Cox, author of Cracking TDVC. Then it’s south by TGV train to the Cathar-Templar-Grail-HBHG Country of SE France, where he drives a 4x4, rides a 'Cathar' horse, visits Carcassonne, Rennes-le-Chateau church, climbs up to Montsegur with a Cathar historian, and goes down a grotto for a reference to the Nazis’ supposed grail quest. Finally we visit The Vatican’s ‘secret archives’ (a concrete bunker with 30 miles of metal shelving) for no perceptible purpose, and he gets a final dismissal from a Vatican scholar. Just as Tony Robinson did in his Channel 4 docu, Hammond concludes Chrétien de Troyes just made the Grail up. Cue the author of The Discovery of King Arthur, Geoffrey Ashe: "In the stories it is magnificent, it is jewelled, it shines, it hovers in the air, it is a supernatural object altogether. It's quite mistaken to equate it with a thing you could actually find and put in a museum or anything like that." He adds the connection between the Grail and Glastonbury is derived from the 19th-century poetry of Tennyson. This being a BBC production, it is unlikely to appear on DVD, but will no doubt circulate around the world’s premium channels. For a more critical reaction (hostile to the lay-person-as-host idea), see The Times review here.