Monday, 6 June 2016
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.