The Guardian 2 February, 2005

TV programs worth watching:
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Episode two in the splendid series The Private Life Of A Masterpiece (ABC 2.00pm Sundays) looks at the creation of Goya's masterpiece The Third of May 1808.

In May 1808, the people of Madrid rose up against Napolean's occupation. French troops brutally suppressed the uprising and hundreds of people were rounded up and shot in the middle of the night.

In 1814, when Napoleon was defeated, Goya was commissioned to depict "the most notable and heroic actions of our glorious insurrection against the tyrant of Europe" for the exiled Spanish King's return.

Instead of glorifying the King, the army or the state, Goya painted the Madrid rebellion and its brutal aftermath, focusing on a group of frightened, anonymous men being shot at point-blank range by a firing squad.

The Third of May 1808 was the first painting to put the victims of war centre stage. Manet noticed its radical qualities in 1865 but only in the 20th century was Goya's work seen as a prophecy of military brutality and human suffering.

The ABC has shown a propensity lately for buying in ducumentaries from US cable TV. These have a dreadful sameness about them: usually following some scientist(s) on a field trip, interspersed with talking heads and a portentous commentary that tries to make up in overstatement for the lack of drama in the visuals.

I therefore approached the new three-part series, Nile (ABC 7.30pm Sundays), with some trepidation. I worried for nothing. Nile is superb.

Made by the BBC, it is one of the most beautifully filmed series I have seen. The Nile is the longest river in the world, and the series shows us its history, its role at different periods in the lands through which it passes, with a quality of filmmaking that leaves for dead the usual home-movie look of most travel or archaeological TV documentaries.

The first episode, Crocodiles And Kings, deals mainly with the society that developed alongside the river in ancient Thebes. Cable TV, I thought, had done the Ancient Egyptian theme to death, for relatively little real benefit to viewers, but this series showed how wrong that idea is.

Simply and yet lucidly the episode makes clear why Egyptian society developed alongside the river, their relationship with the wildlife beside and in the river, why their religion developed in the way that it did, and the objective reasons for these developments, all dependant on the river. How the annual flooding of the Nile, for example, both tested and confirmed the power of the Pharoah.

The next episode deals with the long and difficult search in the 19th century for the headwaters of the river. I am looking forward to it.

At last, a new series of Foyle's War (ABC 8.30pm Sundays). As viewers of the two previous series will know, this is first rate televsion drama beautifully crafted, extremely well written, excellently acted and directed.

It is because it is so well written that only four episodes are made in each series. It maintains the quality but sadly limits the quantity.

Made for British commercial TV network ITV1, the series is written by Anthony Horowitz and directed by Gavin Millar. The series' setting the early years of WW2 in Britain has allowed Horowitz in earlier episodes to make some pertinent observations about the presence of pro-fascist elements in England and also about the military mindset.

The first episode of the new series, The French Drop, sees Foyle come up against rivalry between different sections of British Intelligence. In particular he encounters the "dirty tricks" of SOE, the notorious Special Operations Executive.

It's another intelligent, thoughtful, and quietly gripping, program.

There's more good writing, although of a different calibre to Foyle's War, in Trevor's World Of Sport (ABC 10.00pm Tuesdays). A rueful comedy series about a dysfunctional sport agent, it is written and directed by Andy Hamilton (Drop The Dead Donkey and Bedtime).

Neil Pearson stars as Trevor Heslop, sports agent to the stars. Trevor's life is in a mess.

He's separated from his wife, his most lucrative client is going crazy and he's having a recurring nightmare about accepting a prestigious award while sitting naked on the toilet.

Fundamentally an honest sports agent, Trevor is desperately struggling to keep his honour in the money-infested waters of commercialised sport.

Paul Reynolds, who usually plays obnoxious, pushy types, plays his obnoxious, pushy partner Sammy Dobbs, and is quite good (he's had lots of practice).

Trevor's World Of Sport features several famous sports stars appearing as themselves, a gimmick that does nothing for me and only occasionally ads verisimilitude to the series.

A Hat Trick production, the series' cast includes many familiar faces from series like Bedtime and movies like Love Actually.

The new series of Little Britain (ABC 9.00pm Wednesdays) is described by the ABC as a "character-based sketch show". They also say that the first series was "hailed as one of the most innovative comedies of 2003".

I found the first episode of the new series dead annoying, and not innovative at all. It turns out that "character-based" sketch comedy means sketches that have dispensed with the basic element of comedy: the gag.

Instead, the writers and performers (Matt Lucas and David Walliams) have convinced themselves that all that is needed to be funny is to act the fool. And being outrageous is apparently the height of hilarious wit.

In the first episode of Series Two, their character teen delinquent Vicky Pollard is caught shoplifting. She tells the security guard, "Oh my God, this is, well, harassment. God you're so racist. It's like being back at Borstal. Anyway, don't listen to her, 'cos everyone knows she's done it with an Alsatian."

Laugh? I nearly pissed myself!

Well, actually, no I didn't. In fact, I found it so tedious that I turned off the preview tape less than half-way through.

While Johnny Howard splurges money on the military, very little money is being provided for stopping the devastation being caused by the steady advance across the Top End of the toxic Cane Toad.

Cane Toads are poisonous. Predators who eat them die quickly. They do not learn to avoid the toads.

Originally from South America, the toads were introduced into Queensland in 1935 in a disastrously ill-considered attempt to biologically control the sugar cane beetle. The toads ignored the beetles and instead settled in to wreak havoc on our environment.

They are wiping out native frogs, kookaburras, quoll, snakes and goannas. Richard Morecroft's new nature documentary Goannas And The Rubbish Frogs (ABC 6.00pm Saturdays) reveals that in parts of Kakadu there are an alarming 20,000 cane toads per square kilometre making Aboriginal communities concerned that goannas could well be wiped out.

At the present rate of funding, an effective genetic control is at least a decade away. Meanwhile, wet season floodwaters are carrying the cane toads ever deeper into previously pristine wilderness areas.

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