TV matters: The Life of Muhammad

Jul 06,2011

Next week, Rageh Omaar's BBC2 documentary The Life Of Muhammad makes TV history as the first biographical documentary to feature no visual images of the subject. This decision is for religious reasons – Islamic theology forbids depiction of the prophet – but such abstinence could usefully have a wider secular application.

It may seem strange to say that there are too many pictures on television, but too many TV producers are in fear of being accused of delivering radio. For example, programmes containing poetry routinely try to find pictorial equivalents for every image. A mention of a blackbird draws on the archives of the ornithological unit; any reference to winter triggers a whitened landscape.

Such thematic matching, though, can be completely wrong for poetry, where the words are often deliberately ambiguous, or where one thing is being compared to another. When TS Eliot writes "the evening is spread out against the sky/like a patient etherised upon a table", the connection is suggestive rather than direct and so can only lose from cutting from library pictures of dusk to out-takes from the Holby City operating theatre. Leave lookalikes to Madame Tussauds.

But while the error there is over-literalism, the problem in news-bulletin visuals is the opposite. On the evening news, shots of a patient on an operating table will now rarely turn up in a report about the NHS; they would only be seen in an item on the economy failing to recover as quickly as expected. A report on health funding would probably be illustrated by library shots of a supertanker trying to change direction and so on.

And many viewers will be looking forward to The Life of Muhammad on the basis that there will be no dramatic reconstructions of the subject's life: a curse of historical film-making that survives despite withering responses from viewers and reviewers. As David Starkey has proved, programmes about the past can be carried by words alone, with contemporary art and architecture pictured where relevant. Visually at least, many television directors should consider converting to Islam.

(The Guardian)



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