The Guardian 9 March, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun 13 March Sat 19 March

It is not often that an historical documentary can be described as "deeply moving", but that is certainly true of the second and final episode of In Search of the Brontes (ABC 2.00pm Sunday).

Of course, this series is not so much a documentary as a docudrama, virtually a narrated feature film, so its capacity for engaging the emotions is much greater than that of your traditional "talking head" type of television documentary.

And it has a particularly pathetic story to tell, for the history of the Bronte family from 1844 on is unquestionably one of triumph and tragedy co-mingled. Indeed, the two seem to be inseparable.

Faced with penury, the sisters set about becoming novelists even as their brother Branwell descends into alcoholism and an early death. Then consumption, which carried off their two young sisters some years before, once again raises its gruesome head.

Consumption (tuberculosis) is a disease of poverty, and the Brontes were nothing if not poor. Their father was only a meanly-paid country parson with a large brood, and the family were seldom well-nourished or for that matter well clad against the elements.

However, other documentaries have put forward the notion that Emily at least died and horribly of other causes, possibly tetanus.

No matter: their story has much to interest the Guardian reader. Not only was a very talented family tragically smitten by the effects of poverty, but it is also the story of three women writers who could only get published by pretending to be male authors.

There may have been a woman on the throne, but the Victorians still considered a woman's place to be in the home. They thought women incapable of serious thought and indeed found the idea of an independent, self-sufficient woman abhorrent and not a little frightening.

Women were still basically chattels, the property and helpmeets of their husband. But this was in the process of changing and the Bronte sisters were part of that process of change.

Their novels, published under male pseudonyms, provoked outrage and shock as well as praise and adulation. The language was condemned as "coarse", the subject matter beyond the pale for many readers.

Today, it is hard to comprehend such criticism of what are in reality passionate, sometimes tempestuous, love stories. But the Bronte women did not shie away from the darker side of Victorian morality.

Anne's The Tenant Of Wildfell Hall deals with such unspoken subjects as the way a wife was effectively trapped if her marriage was not a happy one. Anne's heroine commits the almost unheard of (certainly not often spoken of) sin of running away from her husband and setting up house somewhere else.

The acting throughout this final episode is excellent, especially Victoria Hamilton as Charlotte and Patrick Malahide as their father. I found it very moving.

The next three programs I will mention are all about murder ancient, recent and modern. The ancient one is Murder in the Temple, this week's episode of Ancient Egyptians (ABC 7.30pm Sundays).

It is adapted from a family saga written down on a 14-foot-long papyrus discovered in 1898 and now in the John Rylands Library in Manchester. The papyrus tells of the rise to wealth and power in the town of Teudjoi of a cousin of the pharaoh Psamtek.

This cousin, Petiese, takes control of the town's temple, and with it the lands and grain owned by the priests. He founds his own local dynasty, but after 30 years or so a shift in the relationship between the Pharaoh and the priesthood means the priests in Tuedjoi can take a murderous revenge and set about reclaiming their wealth and their power.

Another docudrama, Murder In the Temple is less engrossing than others in this series, perhaps because there is little sympathy for Petiese: what befalls his family is his own fault.

Agatha Christie's unlikely sleuth Miss Marple is in fine form once again in The Murder At The Vicarage, this week's episode of the series Marple (ABC 8.30pm Sundays).

Geraldine McEwan plays the "fluffy old maid" with just the right amount of mischievous disrespect for propriety and manages to suggest that there really is a brain in her unkempt old head.

As usual with this series, the production values and the supporting cast are both of a high calibre. This week we have Tim McInnerny (Lord Percy from Blackadder) as the vicar with a body in his study.

There's also Derek Jacobi being beastly to everyone in sight so that lots of people would like to see him dead, Herbert Lom as a mysterious Frenchman, Jane Asher as an inoffensive (and hence doomed) lesbian, and Miriam Margoyles as a gossip and red herring. And as the copper whom Miss Marple has to win over to her way of thinking, Stephen Tompkinson, being splendidly stiff and uncomfortable. An excellent, well thought out performance.

You would think an undertaker would be ideally placed to dispose of a dead body, but apparently it's not that easy. There's audits, you see.

Up In Smoke, this week's instalment of Blue Murder (ABC 8.30pm Fridays), deals with the consequences of an office worker at a crematorium reporting to the police that the computer records don't tally. As a result we probably learn more about the procedure after the coffin has disappeared behind the curtain than we really wanted to know.

There is certainly no lack of victims or suspects. This is a spirited series that has improved considerably since the first series.

There is still too much time spent on the home life and child-rearing problems of DCI Lewis (Caroline Quentin) but fortunately the cops-and-robbers aspect still holds centre stage.

To promote Australian tourism, Roy Slaven and HG Nelson present a weekly show in the USA explaining Australian news, music, sport, etc. It's allegedly quite popular.

Now, the ABC has decided to present it here. How narcissistic can you get?

It's called The Memphis Trousers Half Hour (ABC 7.30pm Saturdays).

Back to index page