The Guardian 6 April, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun April 12 Sat April 18


When the volcano of Krakatoa exploded on August 27, 1883, it spewed a huge quantity of rock and ash to a height of 60 kms (approx 35 miles) into the air. Hurled into the jet stream, this deluge of matter spread across the globe causing spectacular sunsets as far away as England.

The vast amount of debris in the upper atmosphere reflected solar radiation back into space and caused the temperature of the Earth to fall by one degree for a year. The final cataclysmic explosion produced the loudest sound in recorded history, clearly audible 2000 miles away in Perth.

It also produced a tsunami over 43 metres high ( 140 feet) that carried one ship over three kilometres inland and could still be measured when it reached the English channel.

Over 36,000 people living in the low-lying coastal areas of Sumatra and Java were killed immediately. Official statistics however only recorded the identities of the 30-odd European victims.

Krakatoa (ABC 8.30pm Sunday) is a mixture of dramatized re-enactment of events in the six months leading up to the final eruption and modern-day vulcanologists (one English, one American) explaining what happened and examining geological remains.

One of them also goes to the site of Krakatoa itself, utterly destroyed in the original explosion, but now being rebuilt from below: "Son of Krakatoa" has emerged from under the sea and is already over 2000 feet high. According to the program it is only a matter of time before it goes boom! Like its predecessor.

The program, a Pioneer Film and Television production for Britain's Channel 4 in association with US network PBS, is very interesting and the dramatised sequences are well done.

But the program is divided into segments of approximately 16 minutes each (to allow for commercials, presumably) and there is much repetitive information after each break, as though the act of going to have a pee would somehow make you forget what the program you were watching was about.

It also has the drawback of constantly trying to make the viewer conscious that a cataclysm is about to happen so keep watching!

The ABC is having a bit of a feast of volcanoes: apart from Krakatoa this week, next week we have another, grander "dramadoc" Supervolcano, basically a disaster movie about a super-volcano erupting in Yellowstone National Park.

Supervolcano makes the real-life Krakatoa look like a damp squib, which probably accounts for the ABC postponing it to next week so that they could run Krakatoa first. Unfortunately, they left the two-part Catalyst: Supervolcano The Truth About Yellowstone to start in this week's lineup (ABC 8.00pm Thursdays) so that instead of being a sensible scientific follow-up to the science-fiction of Supervolcano, its first part at least now somewhat anti-climactically precedes the program it's reacting to.

Men between 35 and 54 years old are the grumpiest of all generations. This is a statistic established by a UK survey and confirmed in the amusing four-part documentary series, Grumpy Old Men (ABC 8pm Tuesdays).

A handpicked collection of grumpy, world-weary blokes including Bob Geldof, Bill Nighy, John Sessions, John Peel, Richard Madeley, Will Self and Rick Stein share their gripes on everything from call centres to body piercing, women who wear visible G-strings to the cult of celebrity, technology, speed humps and ring tones.

Some of it hits the nail on the head, some of it sounds rather plaintive. On the whole it's an amusing whinge.

Al-Qaeda in Europe in the Cutting Edge slot (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday) is a joint production from the USA's Frontline program, The New York Times and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's documentary program The Fifth Estate. Not surprisingly, it takes the Bush Administration's line on "the threat of Islamic terrorism".

According to this approach, the bombings on March 11, 2004, of Madrid's morning commuter trains were not aimed at forcing one of the USA's allies from withdrawing its troops from Iraq (which was in fact the outcome), but were part of jihad against Europe. In support of this thesis the program boldly declares that since 9/11, European law enforcement and intelligence agencies have foiled dozens of Islamic terrorist plots.

For the PBS Frontline team, war between Islam and the West is a reality: open and full scale in Iraq (between "the USA's armed forces and Islamic insurgents") and clandestine in Europe.

The program does admit that many European Muslims are poor and subject to bigotry; they have lived in Europe for years and many were born there yet often feel that they are not full members of society.

All of the top "counter-terrorism" officials interviewed for this program warn that the threat of terrorist attacks in Europe is only growing because of the USA's strategy of going to war in Iraq.

Get Up Stand Up (ABC 10.00pm Saturdays) is a six-part series from German TV channel ZDF on the history of protest song. It begins around 1900 with the songs of Joe Hill, but the coverage is often disjointed and idiosyncratic, seemingly giving prominence to people the program had footage of or could find to interview.

Performers the program had not been able to obtain footage of were largely ignored. Nevertheless, the first episode (We Shall Overcome) at least is well worth watching consistently interesting and sometimes enlightening.

Besides spending time with an elderly Pete Seeger and an only slightly younger-looking Peter, Paul and Mary, the program devotes time to the German and French protest song.

What does emerge very clearly however is that the makers of the series do not have a working class perspective. This is a middle class history of protest song, so the overthrow of socialism in Eastern Europe or Tibetan independence is as important as opposing imperialism or exposing capitalist exploitation.

Further, the program makers overestimate the political role of the various artists they include and underestimate the mass movements that fostered, inspired and drove their music.

One of the people interviewed makes the point at one stage that Bob Dylan was "about ten thousand people short of a movement". When Dylan decides to abandon political songs and, as the commentary coyly puts it, "follow his muse", the program goes out of its way not to be critical in any way.

Nevertheless, with all its faults, it's worth watching for those magical moments when movement and music fuse together into something powerful and very moving indeed.

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