The Guardian 23 February, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun 27 February Sat 5 March


The predilection of historical documentaries, especially those made for US cable TV, for re-enacting their subject matter is not one I generally care for. The acting is usually wooden and second rate, the authenticity dubious and the bombast excessive.

I consequently approached the new series Ancient Egyptians (ABC 7.30pm Sundays) with some misgivings. I need have had no fears: Ancient Egyptians is excellent.

It leaves you in awe at the extent of our detailed knowledge of the life of the ordinary people of ancient Egypt, and especially of the knowledge that has been uncovered of the doings of certain of the Pharaohs.

A Wall To Wall Production for US cable outfit The Learning Channel and British networks Granada and Channel 4, this is a hugely ambitious series that brings to life four true stories from the age of the Pharaohs.

These are compelling human stories, told through the words and deeds of real people: a poor quarryman arrested for tomb robbing, an inexperienced Pharaoh facing a threat to his kingdom, a family caught up in a violent feud, and destitute twin girls struggling to survive in an unforgiving world.

Based on papyrus court records, letters and tomb inscriptions, the series gives a rich and detailed picture of actual characters and the story of their lives. Filmed on location in Morocco and Egypt, with meticulously researched sets, locations and costumes, Ancient Egyptians brings them back to life with convincing authenticity.

Even the dialogue, when there is any, is given in what the publicity claims is "the original ancient Egyptian language". True enough, but one does wonder about the pronunciation and accent (did it really sound like Arabic?).

The first episode, The Battle of Megiddo, deals with the young Pharaoh Tuthmosis III who had barely ascended the throne when he was faced by a revolt of 150 subject princes, of kingdoms large and small, mainly to the north. Led by a Syrian ruler the program insists on calling a "warlord", the rebels prepared to invade and conquer the Egyptian Empire.

The program demonstrates how the great wealth and organisation of Egypt enabled the young Pharaoh to assemble, arm, train and, on May 19,1458 BC send into battle a well-equipped and disciplined army, and how the army fell apart at the moment of victory when the opportunity came to loot the Syrian dead.

In A War Of Nerves, this week's final episode of Foyle's War (ABC 8.30pm Sunday), Foyle is told to keep an eye on a "dangerous Communist agitator". Meanwhile there is funny business going on in the local shipyard, involving organised crime.

This series will be seriously missed in our household at any rate.

Andrew Denton developed a fairly small amount of talent into a largely undeserved reputation for being a master of spontaneous wit. His attempt to crack the big time in Britain however was an ignominious failure and he quickly returned to become a "big fish" in our little pond here.

In the absence of real opportunities for comedy in Australia a situation that has prevailed for some time now he has become a chat show host (as others have become quiz show hosts).

As a chat show host, his air of smug self-satisfaction at his own cleverness seems wildly misplaced. His series, Enough Rope (ABC 9.30pm Mondays), with its powder-puff questions and ingratiating banter makes Parkinson look hard hitting.

The series returns for yet another inconsequential season this week, with what the ABC proudly declares to be an "exclusive": the only Australian television interview with Crown Princess Mary and Crown Prince Frederik of Denmark. Well Golly Gosh, now isn't that impressive?

The subject of Hot Docs this week is Howard Hughes (SBC 10.00pm Tuesday), aviator, film producer, serial womaniser, inveterate militarist, associate of the Mafia and the CIA, and filthy rich person.

His initial wealth came from the inherited Hughes Tool Company, but he ruthlessly and enthusiastically enlarged it as well as branching out into aviation, the movies, military contracts and the space race.

Extremely reactionary, he made a packet from clandestine projects for the CIA. How much he made from involvement of the Mafia in his Las Vegas hotels is not known.

He is often depicted as an eccentric. Don't be fooled: Hughes epitomises money hungry capitalism at its most rapacious.

Until Death Do Them Part, screening in the Inside Australia timeslot this week (SBS 8.30pm Wednesday), is a poignant account of what it means after 57 years of marriage to have to place your partner in a home. It's a situation faced by thousands of Australian couples every year.

One of the side-effects of the long drought has been the disappearance of leeches from the undergrowth in the forest adjacent to where I live. The mosquitos are significantly fewer too.

I know that these are actually signs that the temperate rain forest of the NSW Central Coast has been badly affected by the lack of rain (despite the recent rainfalls, welcome though they were). Nevertheless, the absence of leeches and mossies is a pleasant change when walking in the bush.

It's nice not to have to be constantly on guard against things attaching themselves to your skin and sucking your blood. I've had lots of leeches since moving to the Central Coast but there's a poor guy in the first epsiode of the new documentary series Body Snatchers (ABC 8.30pm Thursdays) who graphically recounts his experience of having one in his nose!

There are plenty of mossies in the series too, one of which left an English woman to return from holiday with an enormous Botfly maggot embedded in a burrow in her scalp.

The series is about parasites, so it's not a series to watch while eating. In fact, the chief effect of this series is to seriously put you off exotic holiday locations or the eating of any food you have not boiled first.

The number and variety of parasites is mind-boggling, the nasty effects some have is alarming, and their cost to society, particularly in poor countries, is appalling.

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