'I wish I'd had more time to profile God'

14 December 2005 |

God made the world in seven days ... and Lord Winston took just five months to write the story. Dare to suggest, though, that his new book and TV series lack expertise and you'll risk making this all-purpose TV pundit barking mad, says Lynn Barber

Sunday November 27, 2005
The Observer

I finally find God in a little cubbyhole of an office next to Hammersmith Hospital. He looks Jewish, as perhaps one might expect, but with a disconcerting Freddie Mercury moustache. He is barking into the phone about a missing cheque for £5,000. It was his fee for some broadcast that was meant to go to charity but had not been received. He says it made him look bad with the charity and was altogether disgraceful. The production values were disgraceful too, he adds. He barks on in this vein while I stand awkwardly a few feet away.

I would not have liked to have been on the receiving end of that phone call. Professor Lord Winston, as he calls himself on earth, is a wrathful god who does not suffer fools gladly. Or journalists - he always makes a point of telling them that he loathes doing interviews, even while launching himself on yet another round of publicity for one of his books or TV series.

This time it is a book and television series called The Story of God, which purports to be a history of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, with lots of exotic cults thrown in. Lord Winston's previous television blockbusters - Making Babies, The Human Body, Human Instinct, Child of Our Time - have been broadly based on his authority as a medical scientist and human infertility expert, but obviously with The Story of God he has thrown off these shackles and become the omniscient Expert on Everything. He knows about God, he tells me, because he is a practising Jew, and familiar with the ancient texts: 'I can read these manuscripts in Latin, Hebrew, Aramaic and some Greek, in the original - which is more than most people writing about God can do. I can speak them too. I can't do cuneiform, but I have a very close friend who helped me with cuneiform texts.'

How did he get into God? It was all because of a meeting with Lorraine Heggessey, then the head of BBC1. He invited her to lunch to tell her about another idea he had prepared. 'I took her to the Ivy, which was a big error because of course normally when I go to a restaurant, I'm the one who is recognised, but because the Ivy has all these media people, Lorraine was the one who was recognised and immediately she was distracted by all sorts of people coming up to her making different pitches. Eventually, she took the proposal I'd written out very carefully and just pushed it aside with the back of her hand, and said, "Have you ever thought of doing a series on God?" And I said, "No, I haven't, and I don't intend to." But I thought about it afterwards and I thought, "Well, actually you could make it into something of an epic," so I cobbled together some ideas and sent off a written proposal, which the BBC then commissioned.'

This was just a year ago - a year in which to write The Story of God (and read all those Hebrew, Aramaic and cuneiform texts) and film it in France, Italy, Spain, Mexico, the US, Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sri Lanka. Lord Winston admits it was a little rushed but he is a quick worker. 'I really don't hang around. I drop in and drop out as soon as I can. I don't do sightseeing which isn't relevant to what I'm going to say on camera.'

Writing The Story of God took him just five months, and he concedes, 'I'd like to have had more time. The subject deserved more time.' I should say so. So would John Cornwell, who gave the book a blistering review in the Sunday Times. 'The Story of God,' he wrote, 'is what happens when a garrulous media scientist writes a book about religion assuming that it is not just so much fantasy but fantasy unworthy of even cursory fact-checking ...'

I mention Cornwell's review and Lord Winston barks: 'I haven't seen it. Who is he?' 'He's an expert on Catholicism. He said the history of religion is not your field and you don't have much respect for scholars whose field it is.' 'Oh right. Well, that's really interesting. I don't think that it has to be your field to write about God, frankly. People write about Judaism who aren't Jews. I haven't heard that criticism before from anybody. Most people have liked the book - but maybe that's because people only tell you to your face what you want to hear.' Could be.

What with one thing and another, our interview has got off to a tetchy start and does not improve when I ask Lord Winston about his spiritual life. 'What an extraordinary question!' he erupts. 'I would have thought that my book lays out very clearly what kind of spiritual life I've got, and if that doesn't come out, I'm sorry! I make it very clear that we arrive at spirituality in a whole range of different ways - conventional belief in an all-powerful god is not something that to me makes entirely rational sense, and that might be offensive to Catholics, for example. But I wonder how a Catholic would explain the tsunami or how the Church could sit by while six million Jews were massacred in central Europe?'

He seems so furious, I find myself muttering that I am not a Catholic. And he still hasn't answered my question. But surely it is not unreasonable to ask the author of The Story of God whether he believes in God? 'Do I believe in the conventional God who sits on a throne in heaven and judges people on earth? No I don't. I don't believe that because I believe in free will. And if you have free will then you can't have a god that intervenes - it doesn't make sense. But you can have a divine idea or divine spirit within you, which I believe. And I come from a religious tradition which is as much concerned with how you behave as how you believe. Judaism is one of the few religions which makes no demands on faith.'

He is an orthodox Jew who unfailingly attends synagogue, observes the Sabbath and will go hungry on film trips rather than eat non-kosher food. He has been married to Lira for over 30 years and has three grown-up children who he says are more orthodox than him. 'They are much less flexible about not doing any work on the Sabbath. For example, I don't have a problem about switching on an electric light on the Sabbath but they won't do that.' So does he go round switching the lights on for them? 'No, of course not!' he explodes.

Enough about religion, which he seems to find a profoundly irritating subject. Lord Winston's real work has until recently been the godlike task of making babies for infertile couples, but he turned 65 in July and retired from the NHS. (A friend of mine was a patient of his and said he could not have been more sensitive and sympathetic. 'Did he bark a lot?' I asked her. 'No absolutely not, I don't know what you mean.')

Does he regret having to retire? Does he miss seeing patients? 'I would be getting into something very political about which I would be uneasy if I talked at great length but let me say that at one level I miss patients dreadfully because they were the biggest single motivation and perhaps where I did the most good. But, without going into detail, I have to say that I find the NHS, and the way it is being run, so dispiriting that, like most people, I couldn't wait to leave it.'

His main scientific activity now is research into modifying pig genes to produce tissue for human transplantation. He says they use pigs because their organs are the right size but no cruelty is involved - the work is cell-based and the animals don't suffer. 'People often ask me whether it would be possible for a Jew to have a pig liver. And, as one of the tenets of Judaism is the necessity to save human life, the answer is yes.'

But if he has this important research work to do - urgent work, too, given the shortage of human organ donors - why doesn't he just get on with it? Why does he have to chase around the world making gormless television series? You might think it was because he liked the money or celebrity but he says nothing could be further from the truth. 'Do you think television seriously pays you money? There are a few television presenters who earn lots of money - I think Simon Schama does actually - but I'm not remotely in that league, I don't want to be in that league, I've never negotiated in that league. No, I don't do television to make money.'

For fame, then? After all, he dallied with an acting career at university so he is presumably not averse to showing off. 'Absolutely not. Not at all. You've really misunderstood me. I do have strong views about celebrity. I think celebrity is corrosive, I think it corrodes values and I think our society is more concerned about celebrity than worth. I don't like being recognised in the street, I prefer to be anonymous. I go through interviews like this, believe me, with fear. I don't enjoy being profiled, I never like reading about myself in newspapers. I promise you, I don't get a lot of pleasure out of being well known. But it is useful, and I do accept that, and I do use that to raise money for charity, and I've raised a lot of money for charity - I mean millions.'

One of his recent efforts to make money for charity has drawn much criticism - his advertisements for St Ivel Advance 'clever milk' (milk with added Omega 3), which have been called misleading. He claims not to have seen the criticism - 'I don't tend to read criticism' - but anyway he has no regrets. 'Over the years I have had all sorts of approaches to advertise or endorse products and I've never done it, but the reason I did it on this occasion was that I was convinced some years ago, when reading the scientific literature, that Omega 3 is a valuable compound and that there is very good evidence that some children will benefit from it. I discussed it with innumerable colleagues before I did it. Maybe it was a mistake to endorse any product, as you suggest, but as one of my very senior colleagues here said to me, "There's a lot of evidence to support the fact that it is good health care."'

My allotted hour is up so I finish by saying, 'Could I ask a very rude personal question - has anyone ever suggested you shave your moustache?' He chuckles quite warmly and says, 'That's not a very rude question - you've asked me far ruder ones! Yes, many people have suggested it. But it's unthinkable. I've had it since I was producing plays at the Edinburgh Festival and the only reason for ever shaving it off would be for a charitable cause. But it never struck me that the charitable cause was demonstrably sufficient to be worth the injury. I like my moustache.'

I am saying goodbye at this point, but he insists on accompanying me down to the lobby and, just when I am within sight of escape, he suddenly declaims: 'When I am pinned and wriggling on the wall, in interviews and profiles, I am very conscious of what Pirandello's character the Father says in Six Characters in Search of an Author. He says, "My drama lies entirely in this one thing, in my being conscious that each one of us believes himself to be a single person, but it's not true. Each one of us has many different possibilities of being. We are different people with the different people we meet and all the time we're under this illusion of being one and the same person with everybody, and it's not true."' Gosh, I say, is that all a quotation? 'Yes,' says Lord Winston, 'and I believe that Pirandello was a great, great writer. So often I've met people who I've judged that I didn't like, or I took a very narrow view of their activity and realised afterwards I was completely wrong about them.' I think what he meant was don't judge him on the basis of this short interview. There are other, better, kinder Lord Winstons. Alas, I didn't meet them.

· The Story of God starts next Sunday on BBC1 at 7pm

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