In the fall of 2013, UKTV’s Yesterday Channel aired the first series of Forbidden History in which Top of the Pops presenter Jamie Theakston attempted to uncover the truth behind various conspiracies and legends. He went in search of the Knights Templar’s treasure, the secret bloodline of Jesus, and ancient giants. It played like a rip-off of the first season of America Unearthed, which had aired from December 2012 to March 2013, though with slightly better production values and somewhat lower levels of crazy. UKTV commissioned the series in July 2013, just a few months after America Unearthed had proved itself to be a major ratings draw in the United States, then the most-watched series on the fledgling H2 channel.
No one mentioned the H2 series in discussing the Yesterday channel’s, but the parallels were striking, from the first-person perspective, to intimations of conspiracies, to sharing some of the same pundits. Forbidden History attracts 1.5 million UK viewers in a country of 64 million, compared to America Unearthed attracting 1.1 million in a country of 319 million. The show is one of the most successful history series for Yesterday.
Like Scott Wolter, Theakston was not shy about asserting that conspiracies were designed to suppress the truth about historical mysteries, telling the Radio Times in 2013 that “I’m fascinated by the processes at work to try and stop people uncovering the truth.” In S01E03, for example, he came very closely to asserting that the Vatican paid off anyone who came too close to finding the tombs of the descendants of Jesus in France. The show’s publicity materials explicitly state that “Over the years extraordinary stories have been buried or suppressed, and brave people who have attempted to tell the truth have been hindered or condemned or both. Until now.”
So who are those brave people?
To find out, I watched a recent episode from Series Two, which aired late last year. Lo and behold, the very first person to be interviewed in S02E02 “The Real Holy Grail” was none other than Alan Butler, our friend from America Unearthed, Curse of Oak Island, and countless other shows, the man who claimed that time travelers built the moon and founded Freemasonry. Shortly after, the show interviewed Clive Prince, the conspiracy theorist; and later his conspiracy theorist writing partner Lynn Picknett will appear. The two were the acknowledged inspiration for Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, when two of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail sued Brown. Oh, we are off to a great start! None of these people is ever identified as a conspiracy theorist or a crazy person; in fact, all of the fringe pundits are presented as though they were serious experts. No medieval historians or experts in medieval literature, or even ancient history, appear on the show, just fringe figures and religious true believers.
There is this, though: On British TV, Butler claims of the Holy Grail that “for me, it’s a spiritual thing,” but on American TV he’s happy to nod along with Scott Wolter and Steve St. Clair that the Grail is really the love child of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Apparently, viewers aren’t meant to watch his appearances on both continents close together.
Theakston interviews a man named Graham Phillips, who claims that he found the Holy Grail in Shropshire, in England. Phillips has also asserted that he found the true Camelot, the grave of King Arthur, and the staff of Moses. He further believes that Merlin discovered America and that a comet caused the Bronze Age collapse. Theakston presents Phillips as though he were a serious investigator with compelling, fact-based ideas. Phillips claims that a Roman scent jar found in a statue at Hawkstone Manor was the jar used by Mary Magdalene to catch Jesus’ blood. Theakston claims that Leonardo painted this cup in his Last Supper.
Next, Theakston looks at a wooden cup in Wales that has the reputed power to heal, the Nanteos Cup, but the cup is medieval and can’t be the Holy Grail. In fact, it wasn’t associated with the Grail until 1901. There is some question over whether the original was replaced at some point with a replica, so Theakston tracks down Fiona Mirylees, the owner of the original, who is deeply religious to judge by her rosary and fervently believes the wooden bowl is the chalice used by Christ at the Last Supper. She previously displayed the cup in a 2010 BBC documentary. Sadly, shortly after the filming of this show, the cup was stolen by burglars when Mirylees lent it to an ill woman who had hoped to be healed. Theakston recognizes that the bowl is medieval and can’t be the Grail if we want the Grail to be something associated with Jesus himself.
After this, Theakston goes to view the famous “Et in Arcadia Ego” monument, the Shugborough relief, with its OUOSVAVV code that Scott Wolter identified as part of the global Jesus-Freemason conspiracy on America Unearthed. As I wrote in 2013, the sculpture, from a painting by Nicolas Poussin, “illustrates a moment from Pliny’s Natural History 35.5.1 when the first artist sees his shadow and thus discovers the art of painting by tracing it.” Here, as on the H2 show, the monument is identified as a clue to finding the hidden tomb of Jesus and/or the fruit of Mary Magdalene’s womb. In S01E03 back in 2013, Theakston investigated the Mary Magdalene-Holy Bloodline myth and determined that there was no evidence to support the claim after giving Bloodline conspiracy authors an hour to promote their wares. Here, however, he lets the claim pass without comment.
After this, Theakston goes to Valencia, Spain to view that city’s alleged Grail, but even Clive Prince doesn’t support the claim that the Roman-era cup is the true Grail. The object contains an ancient Alexandrian alabaster cup from c. 100-50 BCE surrounded by medieval adornments from the Islamic period. Prince and Picknett, though, agree that the cup is the most likely candidate for the true Grail among all those put forward over the past few centuries. Picknett suggests that the Catholic Church lets people think this cup is the true Grail in order to keep “control of the Jesus story.”
At the end of the hour, Theakston admits that there is no proof that any of these were the Grail, but he decides that “evidence” (whatever that is supposed to be) makes the Valencia cup the strongest candidate for the Grail. He does not, however, explain the trouble it would cause to say that the Bible is wrong about the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and numerous other details while maintaining that the Last Supper actually happened and that the table setting was kept safe from events that some fringe figures deny ever occurred. Why credit one part of the Gospel narrative while asserting that all the others are fictional?
Theakston has one up on Scott Wolter in that he admits to having no expertise in history and no claim to know the truth. He also offers wishy-washy conclusions that do not explicitly endorse crazy claims. But his show presents only crazy claims and myths, in keeping with the assertion of UKTV executives that their programming is not true per se but rather “entertainment inspired by history.” Unlike H2, they are at least honest about their uneasy relationship to truth.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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