The Guardian 13 April, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun April 17 — Sat April 23

In my opinion, Howard Goodall’s programs about music are among the finer works of TV. It is therefore with pleasure that I note the repeat of his series, Howard Goodall’s Great Dates, starts this week (ABC 2.00pm Sundays).

Whether Goodall is conscious of it or not, he approaches his subject (basically, great moments in music) by way of historical materialism. I quote from the program’s own publicity: "Are great pieces of music freak accidents of genius or the direct product of their time, place, culture and politics? In Howard Goodall’s Great Dates the presenter and composer puts his case for the latter".

The first episode is Wagner 1874. In that year Wagner was completing Götterdammerung, the final work of his monumental Ring Cycle. This huge, High Romantic work is an extraordinary attempt to express a philosophy through music.

It was written as an all-­encompassing response to the times in which Wagner lived. Marx’s Capital had appeared seven years earlier. Darwin’s Origin of the Species had only been published in 1859 and its repercussions were still reverberating through Western society.

The final episode of Battlefield Detectives (ABC 7.30pm Sunday) examines the Charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War. On October 25, 1854, at the Battle of Balaclava, the British Light Brigade of cavalry made a heroic but disastrous charge against entrenched Russian artillery. A third of the Brigade were killed or wounded.

They were not meant to attack these particular guns; the Light Brigade was actually supposed to go and prevent other Russian troops from removing British guns from some captured Turkish redoubts. But a badly phrased order given to a commander who could not see the redoubts or the guns in question but could see Russian guns further up the valley resulted in a suicidal charge that became legend.

Looking for a scapegoat for their own incompetence and to explain away a military fiasco, the British blames the "cowardice" of their Turkish allies. But as this program is at pains to demonstrate, two thirds of the "thin red line" who stopped the Russians subsequent to the Charge were not British Redcoats but Ottoman Turks.

British propaganda, however, assisuously wrote them off as cowardly until British, Australian and New Zealand forces were taught the truth at Gallipoli.

The second half of the two-part Catalyst special Supervolcano: The Truth About Yellowstone screens this week (ABC 8.00pm Thursday). The first episode screened last week.

The program claims that America’s Yellowstone National Park masks one of the rarest and most destructive forces on Earth — a supervolcano. If it were to erupt it is predicted that three-quarters of North America would be wiped out.

Part two of this BBC documentary shows how scientists have tracked the ash fall from Yellowstone’s three previous super-eruptions. Jack Lowenstern, the scientist in charge of Yellowstone, believes its next one could unleash 1000 cubic kilometres of ash — 1000 times more than the eruption of Mt St Helens. The above scientific program also clearly forms the basis for the BBC drama Supervolcano (ABC 8.30pm Sunday), a disaster movie set in Yellowstone in the year 2020 (curiously, and no doubt the result of having a small budget, cars don’t appear to have changed at all in 15 years).

This is dramatised speculation about how a super-volcano eruption would impact on the US. As such it is quite well done, although it does tend to peter out towards the end.

Like all such shows, much of it tends to be set in hi-tech command posts, where the authorities watch everything on massive monitor screens that would not be out of place on the Starship Enterprise. There are only fitful attempts to convey the magnitude of the medical and relief efforts that would have to be put into effect, the vast rescue effort that would be needed and the enormous diversity of organisations and services that would have to play a part in it.

Nevertheless, the very situation gives it inevitable thrills and it is worth a look.

According to a UK survey, the crazy beautiful people of the swinging ’60s turned into the most discontented generation in history.

This week’s episode of Grumpy Old Men (ABC 8.00pm Tuesdays) puts a very caustic boot into more modern irritants that we can all sympathise with: from the pointless chatter that consumes most mobile phones, to the relentless spread of urban ugliness.

There are also a couple of suggestions on how to fight back.

Ok, Let’s Talk About Me, screening in the Inside Australia timeslot (SBS 7.30pm Wednesday) is a touching documentary about what growing up means for a young man with Down’s Syndrome.

For Eddie Jenkinson, turning 18 turns out not to be about getting a job or looking after himself but about being able to do things which, for him, defines being an independent man: buying his own beer, hanging out with mates, being with his girlfriend.

In a rational, non-capitalist world, society’s chief interest in the so-called "Vinland Map", which appears to show that Viking adventurers had reached the New World as early as 1000AD, would be to establish its authenticity for historical purposes.

But in a capitalist world, the chief interest in it — since it first appeared in the 1950s — has always been "what’s this worth?". Consequently, as Vinland: Viking Map Or Million Dollar Hoax (ABC 8.30pm Thursday) shows, those most involved in the story of the map have been shady Spanish booksellers and billionaire US bankers.

The four-part series The Art of War, a personal exploration by Betty Churcher of Australian art that was inspired or provoked by our involvement in conflicts over the past century, is being screened over two consecutive nights (SBS Parts 1 & 2, 7.30pm Saturday) with Parts 3 & 4 screening the following day, Sunday April 24, also at 7.30pm.

War, with its inhumanity and heroism, its spectacle and tragedy, its courage and despair, has always inspired artists to try to capture some aspect of this for posterity — or just for themselves.

The Art of War, made by Film Australia, uses images from official war artists, soldiers on the frontlines or in POW camps, civilians in concentration camps as well as those on the home front; it is a story of unknown artists in addition to famous names such as George Lambert, Nora Heysen, Wendy Sharpe and Sidney Nolan.

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