Monday, 6 June 2016

410 Chronicle

First  viewed :  20  November  1979

I'm  not  sure  I  want  to  admit  to  this  but  yes  there  was  a  time  when  I was  taken  in  by  all that  Da  Vinci  Code  rubbish  and  here's  where  it  begins.

This  is  one  of  those  instances  where  I  can  recall  the  exact  circumstances  in  which  I  watched  the  programme. It  was  a  Tuesday  and  we  had  the   decorators  in  at  home  so  for  a  second  night  I  was  staying  at  my  gran's   10  minutes  ' walk  away.  It  was  also  a  very  foggy  day  and  either  the  bus  company  or  our  headmaster  determined  that  the  bus  taking  pupils  back  to  Littleborough  would  leave  early  at  3pm. However  I  had  a  dress  rehearsal  that  evening  for  the  play  I  was  going  to  be  in  at  the  end  of  the  week  ( David  Shellan's  Perfection  City  ; I  played  Jackson  and  Anthony  Mooney  who's   now  a   reasonably  successful  TV  actor  played  Deadbeat  )  so  I  stayed  put.

I  was  resigned  to  missing  the  final  episode  of  Not  The  Nine  O  Clock  News  that  night   but  there  was  a  bit  of  hope  when  Sean  Kearney  ( a  regular  truant  whose  casting  was  a  calculated  risk  )  didn't  show  up. However  Perfection  City is  only  really  a  playlet  and  so  was  double-billed  with  the  very  different  Burglars  ( David  Rudkin ) . Therefore  the  rehearsal  for  that  went  ahead  first  and  I  got  made  up in  the  hope  that  Kearney  would  still  show. He  didn't  but  it  was  still  touch  and  go  whether  I  would  get  back  in  time  as   returning  to  Littleborough  out  of  school  hours  required  two  buses . However  by  happy  chance  the  drama  teacher  Mike  Fitzpatrick  lived  in  Littleborough  himself  and  gave  me  a  lift  and  so  I  got  back  with  half  an  hour  to  spare.

I  immediately  turned  the  TV  to  the  right  channel  in  preparation  and  caught  the  second  half  of   that  week's  Chronicle  , BBC  Two's  flagship  history  and  archaeology  series  that  had  been  running  since  1966.  That  episode  The  Priest  , The Painter  And  The  Devil   was   the  second  in  a  series of  three  documentaries  presented  by  Henry  Lincoln  which  developed  from  a  local  mystery  he  discovered  while  on  holiday  in  the  south  of  France.  What  the  programme  didn't  tell  you  was  that  Lincoln  was  not  a  professional  historian  but  a  former  scriptwriter  for  Dr  Who.  His  investigations  were  inspired  by  a  book  he  read  about  a  lowly  parish  priest  Sauniere  in  the  French  village  of  Rennes-le-Chateau  who in  the  late  nineteenth  century became  inexplicably  wealthy  after  discovering  some  mysterious  coded  parchments  during  church  renovations. Lincoln  ran  with  the  story  and  in  this  documentary  postulated  that  Sauniere's  discovery  was  linked  to  the  thirteenth  century  Cathar  heresy  which  held  that  the  world  was  created by  the  Devil  and  that  he  became  a  secret  adherent. It  was  Lincoln's  "discovery"  of  occult  symbolism  in  Sauniere's  church  and  a   Poussin   painting  linked  to  the  mystery  by  one  of  the  parchments   that  really  grabbed  me, an  enthralling  subject  for  a  straight  history  series.

But  there  was  more. It  turned  out  at  the  end  of  the  programme   that  it  was  actually  a  repeat  dating  back  to  1974  and  Lincoln  was  going  to  present  his  subsequent  discoveries  in  a  new  documentary  the  following  week !  I  made  sure  I  watched   Shadow  Of  The  Templars. In  the  intervening  years  Lincoln  had  been  mysteriously  directed   to  documents  supporting  the  existence  through  the  centuries,  of  a  secret  society  the  Priory  of  Sion. Lincoln  seems  to  have  been  utterly  bereft  of  the  professional  scepticism  a  real  historian  would  have  brought  to  all  this   and  his  researches  were  now  aided  by  US  novelist  Richard  Leigh  and  New  Zealander  photo-journalist  Michael  Baigent. The  latest  documentary  was  somewhat  confusing  mixing  undisputed  history  where  the  Templars  were  concerned  with  Lincoln's  own  mystifying  geometrical  speculations   and  provided  no  real  answers.

Three  years  later  it  was  all  tied  together  in  the  book  Lincoln  wrote  with  Leigh  and  Baigent  The  Holy  Blood  and  the  Holy  Grail . Baigent  who  seems  to  have  had  an  anti-Catholic  agenda  had  come  up  with  his  own  hypothesis  that  the  Priory  of  Sion  existed  to  protect  the  knowledge  that  Christ  had  married  Mary  Magdalene  and  their  descendants  were  the  Merovingian  kings  of  France  whose  line  still  existed  today. Both  the  Vatican  and  the  academic  world  condemned  it  as  rubbish.

I  had  a  dilemma. I  wanted  to  read  the  conclusion  of  the  story  but  didn't  want  to  defy  the  Vatican  ban  so  I  started  reading  it  a  couple  of  pages  at  a  time  whenever  I  passed  through  Leeds  railway  station. Of  course  I  was  nowhere  near  finishing  it  when  it  disappeared  from  the  shelf  and  in  any  case  one  of my  tutors  at  Leeds , the  acerbic  Dr  Loud  , peremptorily  dismissed  it  as  "Crap !"  which  sowed  the  first  seeds  of  doubt in  my  mind.

After  I  graduated  in  1986  I  returned  to  Littleborough  and  found  it  in  the  library  there  which  provided  another, better  solution  to  buying  it. However  I  jumped  towards  the  end  and  found  a  passage  where  they  say  how  can  you  trust  the  Bible  when  Matthew  talks  about   shepherds  visiting  the  nativity  and  Luke  about  three  kings ?  At  that  point  I  realised  it  was  illogical, ill-researched  rubbish  and  never  opened  the  book  again.

Even  before  the  book  was  published,  a  French  writer  Jean-Luc  Chaumeil  had  contacted  the  writers  to   warn  them  that  his  investigations ( inspired  by  Lincoln's  documentaries )   had  uncovered  that  the  whole  Priory  of  Sion  thing  was  an  elaborate  hoax  by  a  trio  of  Frenchmen  led  by  a  convicted  fraudster  named  Pierre  Plantard . Plantard  had  actually  been interviewed  by  Lincoln  in  Shadow  of  the  Templars   because  he  had  inserted  his  name  at  the  bottom  of  a  Merovingian  family  tree  copied  from  a  magazine  and  then  deposited  with  France's  National  Archive  service.  On  publication  of  the  book  Plantard   was  quick  to  deny  that  he'd  ever  said  the  Merovingians  were  descendants  of  Christ  which  was  true  but  he  wasn't  a  Merovingian  either. Another  of  the  trio  Gerard  de  Sede  was  the  author  of  the  book  on  Sauniere  which  set  Lincoln  off  on  his  quest  but  that  was  all  lies  too. Sauniere  had  made  a  lot  of  money  but  it  was  from  collecting  donations  for  more  masses  than  he  could  physically  say, a  nasty  fraud  but  of  no  historical  significance.

Chronicle  ended  in  1991  but  the  broadly  similar  Timewatch  in  1996  devoted  a  programme   to  purging  the  BBC's  embarrassment   by  debunking  the  whole  myth  and  allowing  Chaumeil   to  forensically  annihilate  every  document   upon  which   Lincoln  and  co  had  relied. Lincoln   was  devastated  and  protested  that  his  geometrical  "findings"  were  still  valid  ( a  clearly bemused  Plantard  had  said  "I  can't  answer  that  "  when  Lincoln  brought  them  up  in  his interview ) .

None  of   the  three  authors  has  ever  fully  admitted  to  being  taken  for  a  ride  with  Baigent  in  particular  still  insisting  it's  all  still  plausible.  It  all  flared  up  again  in  2003   with   Dan  Brown 's   airport  trash  bestseller  The  Da  Vinci  Code  which   made  liberal  use  of   the   ideas  in  The  Holy  Blood  and  the  Holy  Grail . In  2006  Leigh  and  Baigent  ( notably  not  Lincoln )  sued  him  although,  as  The Guardian  pointed  out   at  the  time , Brown's  publishers  and  theirs  were  owned  by  the  same  parent  company,  suggesting  it  might  be  a  cost-effective  way  of  advertising   the  forthcoming  film  rather  than  a  genuine  suit. Brown  won  it  anyway  and  Leigh  died  shortly  afterwards. It's  unclear  to  what  extent  Brown  himself  believes  in  the  Holy  Grail  hypothesis.

This  all  prompted  another  debunking  documentary  from  Tony  Robinson  on  Channel  5  which  essentially  made  the  same  case  as  the  Timewatch  film  a  decade  earlier.  


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