A tie-up between television companies in Wales and Russia has yielded a magical series of animated modern interpretations of Old Testament stories. Bernard Adams applauds a bold move.
So far we've had Moses and Ruth, next week it's Jonah, and after that Elijah, Joseph, Daniel, Abraham, David and Saul, and the Creation. So what has the team that made Animated Shakespeare done with the best stories in the Old Testament?
After seeing the first four it is clear that the narratives, which don't always leap excitingly from the densely printed columns of the Bible, have been magically reinvented for the television screen. There are flaws, but these half-hour films open up for the widest possible audience the ancient tales of blood, sacrifice, endurance and faith in a way that is far removed from most children's Bibles.
Interestingly, the series does not start with the Creation - that comes much later - but with what the makers probably considered their best film, "Moses". It is an immensely sophisticated piece of animation using computer-enhanced drawings to tell of the epic struggle between Moses and Pharaoh (voiced by Simon Callow), taking in the plagues (top marks for the locusts), the Israelites' exodus and the parting of the Red Sea. The characterisation is superb, with a convincingly evil Menephtah and a patient and wise Moses (Martin Jarvis). Sometimes the narrative becomes cloudy, but the pictures have a consistent sharpness and edge that give the story real pace and tension.
The story of Ruth was done very differently. The simple tale of self-sacrifice and endurance was told through puppet animation - a much simpler style, but one which perfectly suits an uncomplicated tale with few characters, and allows the lyricism and psychological insight of the original to shine through. The wide-eyed puppets come very close to sentimentality at times but just about manage to avoid it.
"Ruth" was made in Moscow by Christmas Films, which has contributed six of the nine programmes in the series. The Russian episodes contrast strongly with the other three, made by Cartwn Cymru in Cardiff, which are more stylish but two-dimensional. It will be interesting to see which proves to the more popular.
Coming up is "Jonah", who is nicely characterised as an Old Testament Victor Meldrew. Surprisingly, the story steers clear of the whale but does make a great job of the scenes aboard ship. John Alderton handles the voices of both Jonah and God, which cleverly suggests that their dialogue is really going on in Jonah's head.
The film of Elijah is a real treat. The prophet has been brilliantly realised as a believable superhero by the designer, Mike McMahon. The Mendelssohn Oratorio (with Elijah sung magisterially by Bryn Terfel) is cleverly integrated, and the writer, Murray Watts, has managed to make the action continuously exciting and suspenseful, with some cracking miracles and a suitably hateful Jezebel (Victoria Wicks).
Each of these films cost around Pounds 750,000 to make, and the money has come from BBC Wales, BBC Education (the entire series will have a re-run on Schools Television in the New Year), BBC2 and S4C, which has the privilege of transmitting a Welsh version first.
There is nothing predominantly Christian about Testament. The films tell stories which have a richness and diversity, suggesting many uses in a classroom, not merely for religious studies. It is in the popular language and idiom of the best children's television and is sure to have audiences of all ages enthralled.