Alice Roberts’ Lovely Programme on Childbirth Slightly Spoilt by bits of Science.

Alice Roberts, scientist, and mother!

Alice Roberts, scientist, and mother!

There was a lovely little programme there on BBC2 the other day, presented by Alice Roberts. Who, by the way, is not just a mother, she’s a scientist too. A doctor if you don’t mind!

She’d previously produced programmes on human evolution and the Human Journey, so she probably felt pressurized to keep throwing little snippets of science in to what was otherwise a delightful meditation on motherhood.

What a joy to be able to watch and listen as the nurse talked her through her scan. There are the little feet! And are they the hands?!

How beautiful is that?

How beautiful is that?

Unfortunately though, just as we were settling down to hear (and see!), in minute detail, just what was going on there in her tummy, we were whisked off into the jungle to hear a bunch of men (surprise surprise) droning on and on about chimpanzees.

Instead of all that guff on chimps, what they should have done instead is show us a few shots of women actually giving birth. So we could see the miracle in action for ourselves.

We were privy to a few of the joyous shrieks as they echoed tantalizingly down the corridor in a maternity ward. What a tease! And then it was off again for more bits of quite unnecessary science.

Hardly the sort of thing you’d expect from a strand like the otherwise reliable Horizon. Must try harder.

Sign up for a subscription right or below and I shall keep you posted every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

Bill Bailey Celebrates the Other Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace.

TX-card-crop-pro1-1.5+(1)I was quietly dreading Billy Bailey’s Jungle Hero, his programme on the forgotten co-discoverer of Evolution by Natural Selection, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Few things are as tired or as tedious as watching yet another so say comic being hilariously mismatched with an incongruous topic, and sent off in search of an exotic location to use as a pointless backdrop.

Happily, this was very much the exception to that rule. Which was principally down to Bailey’s unmistakable and genuine enthusiasm for his subject, and their joint area of interest.

Alfred Russel Wallace was an amateur scientist in the classically Victorian mould. He spent his life trying to make sense of the animal kingdom and our place in it. And he funded his quest by travelling to the farthest corners of the globe, collecting exotic specimens that he was able to send back home and sell in London.

located-in-southeast-asia-in-the-malay-archipelago-indonesia-indonesia+1152_12987332687-tpfil02aw-18651These twin pursuits, of knowledge, and of collecting insects – and discovering new ones –  are clearly shared by Bailey. And there really was only way for him to tell us about Wallace and his discoveries. Which was to take us with him on the journey that the latter made in the 1850s.

Bailey and his fellow film makers got everything just about right in this programme. The explanations of how Russel arrived at the idea of natural selection, and of why it was that it happened there, in the Malay Archipelago were clear and simple without ever being over simplified. And they were interspersed with just about the right amount of local colour and personal anecdote.

There was a political slant to the programme too. Wallace is the forgotten figure in the story of evolution by natural selection. We only ever remember the first person to discover anything, and society and the scientific establishment chose to celebrate the well-bred Darwin and not the lowly Wallace, despite the fact that their papers were presented together.

Indeed, Darwin was only moved to publish at all because of what Wallace had sent him. When to his horror, he discovered that his life’s work was in danger of being eclipsed by this amateur enthusiast on the other side of the world.

BillBaileyAll of which is true. But Darwin had been working on his theories for nearly 20 years before Wallace had his eureka moment. But he understood how explosive an idea natural selection would prove to be, and he wanted to gather as much evidence as he could before publishing anything.

And there were other reasons why the scientific world forgot Wallace. Like his proselytising of Spiritualism, and his credulous championing of séances, both of which he insisted on seeing in a “scientific” light.

Nonetheless, he deserves to be more fully celebrated, and Bailey is demonstrably the perfect man for the job. The concluding episode is on this weekend on BBC2.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music.

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

BBC2’s Superb Programme “The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum”.

herculaneum-panoramaSurprisingly, the first time that anyone ever practiced archaeology was in 1738. It was then, on October 22nd to be precise, that Rocque Alcubierre sat down to carefully write down a description of all the things they were digging up at the recently discovered Roman town of Herculaneum, just outside of Naples.

Soon after that, a second town captured in time was unearthed at nearby Pompeii. And the science of archaeology was born, as Rocque and his fellow workers began to ask themselves the sorts of questions that archaeology poses.

Should they put what they found back where they found it? Or should they take it away to be stored somewhere else, where it could be looked after more safely? And if so, where?

cyclades-mapThe word archaeology had first been coined by the Greek historian Thucydides in the 5th century B.C., when he described what had accidentally been dug up on the island of Delos.

Delos had always been sacred to the Greeks. The group of island that it is part of, the Cyclades, gets its name from the fact that it is around Delos that the larger islands of Naxos, Paros and Mykonos are circled.

So the Greeks had always assumed that they’d always lived there. But when they dug up artefacts that had clearly come from nearby Turkey, Thucydides correctly argued that there must have been others who had lived there before the Greeks.

But it was only after Herculaneum and Pompeii were discovered some two thousand years later that we began to practice, systematically, archaeology itself. They’d been caked in volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius had erupted in 79 A.D. And they’ve given us an extraordinary window into life in first century Ancient Rome.

Our guide for this programme was Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Director of the Herculaneum Conservation Project in Rome. And what he gave us over the course of the hour were a series of fascinating insights that were as calmly informative as they were quietly moving.

He walked us through the differences between Herculaneum and the more famous Pompeii, explaining the different discoveries that we’ve been able to make there, and how it was that they were revealed.

CIMG2004-1Painstaking analysis of human waste, bones and skeletons, together with an array of artefacts has produced an arresting set of images frozen in time. Women and children huddling in shelter, as the menfolk stood desperately out in the open on the beach. A young boy clinging on to his pet dog. A two-year-old girl with her silver earrings, being clung to by her mother.

Wallace-Hadrill was the perfect guide on a fascinating tour. And what a pleasant surprise to see a programme on Rome where the focus of attention was on the Classical world and not on the presenter. Erudition and a certain sense of modesty are not, it seems, a thing of the past.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.

BBC2’s Superb “Afghanistan: The Great Game, A Personal View by Rory Stewart”.

Rory Stewart is the perfect guide to walk us through the last few hundred years that the people of Afghanistan have been forced to suffer through.

Not yet 40 and currently serving as a Tory MP, he was a star pupil at Eton where he actively supported the Labour Party, and then at Oxford and Harvard, before working as a diplomat in the Balkans, and as a senior coalition official in Iraq between 2004-5. But he is probably best known for his award winning book The Places in Between, which charts his 32 day trek across Afghanistan in 2002.

So he is naturally reluctant to draw any obvious parallels between the disastrous campaigns conducted in Afghanistan in the past, and those that the people there have been subjected to more recently. Which only serves to make those comparisons all the more conspicuous.

The first part of his BBC2 programme focused on the British and Russians as they fought for influence in the region during the 19th century, in what came to be known as the Great Game. Whilst the second looked at the Russians and the Americans as they fought for exactly the same reasons, in exactly the same region, and with exactly the same results, in the 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

One of the more interesting elements in Stewart’s measured yet impassioned programme was that, far from stumbling blindly into the region both the British and especially the Russians knew perfectly well how fraught with danger, politically and militarily, meddling in Afghanistan was. But they felt obliged to do so anyway, for fear of appearing weak to the competing superpower on the other side of the fence.

The results were, almost needless to say, disastrous. You can practically trace the dotted line linking the CIA’s clumsy and staggeringly miscalculated attempt to make up for the shame of Vietnam by arming the mujahedeen to the teeth in the 80s, and the destruction of the Twin Towers 20 years later.

America’s response of then stampeding blindly back into, where else, but Afghanistan was as predictable as it was, from America’s own perspective, tragic. That, of all things, a British prime minister should have been so impervious to history to have so willingly followed them in there is, again, almost beyond belief. God save us all from conviction politicians.

One of the things that this programme was particularly good at was reminding us all that, as bad as it was for the powers engaged there in their vain pursuit of influence, it was of course immeasurably worse for all the actual Afghans there caught in the resulting crossfire.

This is the sort of thing that the BBC still does so well. And Stewart is, demonstrably, something of a star.

Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week with All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!

Subscribe here for regular updates. And get your FREE GIFT of the first 2 chapters of my book, A Brief History Of Man.