The Guardian 23 March, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun March 27 — Sat April 2


The problem with documentary programs made by commercial television, especially those made in conjunction with US cable networks, is that they see themselves as being in competition with other channels for viewers. Consequently they try to persuade you that the program you are watching is more significant or more dramatic than any similar program elsewhere.

The result is a tone of breathless excitement that the material seldom warrants, and which is quickly tiring to the viewer. Such is the new series of Battlefield Detectives (ABC 7.30pm Sundays).

The first episode, Massacre At Waterloo, examines the final battle of the Napoleonic Wars. Much of the episode is interesting, although not as revelatory as the makers would have us believe.

The Duke of Wellington chose the site for the battle, and as we soon see, chose it well, positioning the British on the crest of a sloping ridge looking down on the advancing French, with the British troops able to shelter out of sight in the lee of the ridge.

Wellington was also helped immeasurably by the weather: it rained heavily the night before and Napoleon's main weapon, his artillery, was well nigh immovable in the mud that resulted.

Some of the program's discoveries are useful: the French explosive shells did little damage to the British troops because they lost their explosive force when buried in mud. On the other hand, conjecture as to whether the French 2IC Marshall Ney was suffering from battle stress proves ineffectual and largely pointless.

Curiously, although the program does admit that nine tenths of Napoleon's Grande Armée were lost in the Russian campaign of 1812 (even treating us to a gratuitous side trip to Vilnius to view bones unearthed by building workers there), it ignores the fact that Napoleon had suffered a series of other defeats before 1815, even being dethroned and sent into exile the previous year.

Although Boney raised a large army on his return to France in 1815, his was already a lost cause. Regardless of how Wellington disposed his troops at Waterloo, France would have been unable to withstand the huge Russian and Austro-Hungarian armies that were also advancing on her.

The final episode of Marple (ABC 8.30pm Sunday) is a small treat for steam buffs, because the story requires Miss Marple's friend Mrs McGillicuddy to witness a murder through the windows of two steam trains as they run parallel to each other. It is very well staged and beautifully shot, taking full advantage of the light playing on clouds of steam at night.

The episode has another splendid cast to support Geraldine McEwan, including Amanda Holden, David Warner, Griff Rhys Jones and John Hannah.

The makers of this otherwise excellent series were not content with adapting Agatha Christie's Miss Marple novels. They added a very uncharacteristic unhappy love affair with a married man to explain why Miss Marple was still a "Miss", something Agatha Christie never found necessary.

No matter, it was still well above average for period detective fiction on TV.

The Op Shop Ladies Of Emerald Hill (ABC 8.00pm Tuesday) is a different kettle of fish altogether. An affectionate study of two women who have given 40 years of service in their local charity shop, it is tinged with bitterness and anger as the gentrification of South Melbourne places the shop's continued existence under threat.

The area may have gone upmarket, but as the current manager points out, cutbacks to social security and other government policies of a like nature mean that there is greater call for the charity's services than ever before.

The Op Shop belongs to the Community Chest, a charitable organisation with no equivalent in Sydney as far as I know. The Community Chest raises money which is dispersed annually to local groups — a kindergarten, a group providing meals for the needy, etc.

It is downright offensive to hear the "advisers" called in by the local Council telling the Op Shop ladies they must run the shop as "a business". Significantly, the ladies later comment on the way people are shocked at how much the shop's prices have gone up.

There is not a lot of room for sentimentality in beef or mutton production, but pork production cries out for protest. Housed in tiny pens in which they can barely move, fed an enriched diet for 25 weeks and then killed, feed-lot production of pork is factory farming at its most efficient.

It is also second only to battery hens as an inhumane way to produce food. It is in fact no longer farming at all, but merely the mass production of meat.

Filled with chemicals and antibiotics, to stimulate growth, it is arguable whether this meat is even good for you.

Piggy: 110 Kilos In 25 Weeks (SBS 8.30pm Thursday) shows one of these factory farms in operation in the Netherlands.

Efficiency in food production is of course essential, but as long as the bulk of the profits go to middlemen and profiteers, the actual producer will go on having to have recourse to these inhumane methods.

In the real world, a police profiler is someone who tells the cops that a black man driving an expensive car fits the profile of a car thief. On television, police profilers are extraordinarily gifted people who not only have insight but very often second sight as well.

Dr Tony Hill (Robson Green), the prickly psychologist-profiler in the series Wire In The Blood (ABC 8.30pm Fridays), fortunately has no extra-sensory powers. Even so, this third series of his investigations continues to suffer from the two other flaws that are common to programs about profilers.

Dr Hill is just too influential in the investigation. Like the pathologist in Silent Witness, he virtually takes over the case, the police simply following his orders.

The other flaw is more subtle: these programs are never content with one killing, or even two. If a psychologist is on board then the villain will be at least a psychotic serial killer, often given to sexual sadism as well.

The program's style reflects these priorities: sharp, staccato editing, brooding mood music, and lots of flashing lights. In this week's episode, Dr Hill's trademark imaginary encounters with the killer's victims are well in evidence.

At least, although they look at him, they don't talk back to him.

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