Television: BBC takes a bath on another Noah tale

Reviews: The Ark is hardly any fun at all; BBC Four covers 500 fascinating years of dentistry with hammers and tongs; and Irish speakers in the first World War are barely given their due

All the way through The Ark (BBC One, Monday), it's hard not to think when you see Noah, "oh there's that Shameless bloke in an oatmeal-coloured kaftan in a desert sort of place". Actor David Threlfall sounds the same, with a somewhere-north-of-England accent. He looks a bit wrecked with his shaggy hair and sunken cheeks. And while he has a bushy beard in a nod to biblical facial hair, he's still distractingly Frank Gallagher from Shameless.

There's that, and there's waiting to see how they do the flood. You can't have a drama called The Ark without some expectation of enormous volumes of water sloshing around at some point. And as its TV, you can't expect a Waterworld- type budget. So waiting to see if the flood is a damp squib adds to the anticipation.

When the flood does come, it’s impressive, believable even, though maybe not worth waiting for: this is a feature-length drama, and it feels every minute of it.

Noah, who lives out of town in a compound with his wife, sons and their wives, gets a message from God – a random bloke who sits down beside him in the field – that a flood is coming and he should build his ark.

Noah goes to town, which is full of people getting drunk, having fun and generally behaving with wanton abandon – shameless even – and tries to persuade them to join him in the boat building.

They think he's mad, the flood washes them away, and he and the righteous few are saved in the vast geometric timber structure that looks more like a Grand Designs shed than a boat. Though the real miracle to me is that Noah and his sons hammer it together despite there not being a tree to be seen on the scrubby horizon.

The Ark's writer, Tony Jordan (I'm a fan of his series Hustle), appears to offer a modern interpretation of the bible story. Noah's loincloth-wearing boys (including an extra son, Kenan) frolic in a pool in the desert when they're not trading tips on the best location to have sex with their wives. Noah and his wife (Joanne Whalley) josh and nag in a modern sort of way.

Beyond the friendly soap-opera accents, The Ark is a full-on fundamentalist interpretation of the biblical story, full of God's wrath and retribution. He's even taken away the animal part: all that going into the ark two-by-two might be too cute in this context. But with its too-bright lighting and corny dialogue, this looks like a made- for-TV movie. I don't think it will find many converts.

Mouth piece

Imagine that the perfect 21st-birthday gift is a full set of dentures? Or that a bride would prepare for the big day by getting all her teeth pulled and replaced by a gleaming set of false gnashers. It was all the rage at the turn of the last century according to the toothy Prof

Joanna Bourke

, presenter of the wonderfully idiosyncratic Drills, Dentures and Dentistry: An Oral History (BBC Four, Monday).

The professor was researching the general subject of pain when she got sidetracked into what has, since medieval times, been a byword for agony: dentistry. In this hour-long documentary, Bourke explores the painful history of how we’ve dealt with our teeth.

She covers 500 years, from the days when extraction was the only treatment by either the barber or the blacksmith – and too bad if the pliers also took a lump of gum and bone with it – to now, where modern techniques have come on so much that a visit to the dentist is supposedly painless. Although, as Bourke wryly observes, “pulling teeth” is still a well-used idiom, and one with entirely negative connotations.

The most intriguing aspect of these boffin-friendly BBC Four documentaries are the experts they find, in specialities you couldn’t imagine even exist. In this one there are researchers, academics and historians who study nothing but teeth and dental instruments, and a museum with cabinets stuffed with false teeth.

There, Bourke is shown sets of “Waterloo teeth”. At London at the time of the battle, a trade in extracting teeth from dead soldiers quickly grew. They were then embedded in ivory to make false teeth for the gentry. The only problem was that they quickly rotted, making fans a must-have accessory for ladies as shields against putrid breath.

If any policymakers are looking for ammunition for the introduction of a sugar tax to fight obesity, they should quote what happened in 1874, when Gladstone repealed the punitive tax on sugar: tooth decay, once only for the rich, became rampant through the entire population and stayed that way for generations ever after.

For a show that promised a whole world of pain, Bourke’s thorough examination of the evolution of dentistry was weirdly fascinating – and not just because she is a gifted communicator, or because this is the weekend traditionally given over to working your way through a mountain of teeth-rotting confectionary.

Irish in the trenches

The BBC’s year-long commemoration of the first World War has been extraordinary, and the remnants of its anniversary programming are still making it to screen. The title Gaeilgeoirí an Chogaidh Mhóir (BBC Two, Sunday) creates a fascinating image: Irish-speaking men in the trenches at the

Somme

and Passchendaele. Thousands of men from the remote west Donegal Gaelteacht joined up in 1914.

It wasn’t ideological – the area was so poor the men were used to going away to work anyway, and the army promised a smart uniform and a regular paycheque. And anyway, everyone figured they’d be home by Christmas.

Actor Tony Devlin presents interviews with descendants of soldiers who died or were injured and quotes from the diary of a Donegal army priest, Fr Pádraig Mac Giolla Cheara, who wrote the only known Irish- language account of life at the front. But the Irish-speaking soldiers themselves are never a presence: their lives are too distant and get lost among the overall story of the first World War, which the documentary spends too much screen time telling.

It has a terrific niche story to tell – who were these men and how did they fit in with the rest of the troops. But that mostly disappears in the wider story of the history of the war.

tvreview@irishtimes.com