The Guardian 27 April, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun May 1 – Sat May 7

Howard Goodall blots his copybook with this week’s final episode of Howard Goodall’s Great Dates (ABC 2.00pm Sundays). The date is 1937 and the composer in the spotlight is Shostakovich.

1937 was the year of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, “a work of astounding power”. However, Goodall has apparently succumbed to the persistent anti-Soviet propaganda campaign, for we are solemnly assured that “if the 5th had been poorly received [in Russia] it might have cost the composer his life”, a statement so groundless as to take the breath away.

He also trots out the now fashionable equation of Nazi Germany with “Stalin’s terror”.

Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony “sounded to many listeners like a cry of anguish at the grim totalitarian world that surrounded him”.

Meanwhile, in the USA, 1937 was “a golden period in jazz” in the hands of such greats as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Count Basie. Goodall also rates it a fine year for Broadway shows “with songs like They Can’t Take That Away From Me by George Gershwin”, who died in 1937.

Although he is conscious that “the African-Americans who created jazz were treated like second-class citizens” in the USA, he again equates their condition with that of the “oppressed” Russians. “Billie Holiday’s searing blues from the same year match Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony as a desperate cry for security and an end to pain.”

Thirty years after the liberation of Saigon, All Points Of The Compass (ABC 7.30pm Sunday) unintentionally reveals just what the Vietnamese people were fighting against. It’s the story of “one South Vietnamese family — [that of] South Vietnam’s last Foreign Minister, Charles Tran Van Lam”.

They were part of the colonial elite in Vietnam, “a culture of aristocracy, arranged marriages, sibling hierarchy, huge wealth and family security”. According to the Australian-made program their father was filled with “love for democracy and the west”.

Certainly, when the US puppet government (a curious feature of “democracy”, one must say) fell, many of the Tran children were being educated in the West — their father carefully grooming them “for a life of leadership in Vietnam”.

Super-8 film shows us the home life of these “future leaders” — the girls pirouetting in their ballet lessons, the boys dressed in cowboy suits, the girls frolicking in their elegant French dresses. The Vietnamese people had other ideas, however, and the children would end up settling in countries at “all points of the compass”.

The program, written and directed by Judy Rymer, is full of sympathy for the younger Trans, but I cannot share it. They have all made it successfully in the West, but not one of them appears to be concerned even with fund raising to alleviate the effects of Agent Orange, sprayed over the people of their homeland by the government they supported, after all.

The Second Coming of Christ may be a key piece of Christian doctrine but it generally makes for poor TV drama. If it isn’t to preach at the viewer, then it must deal with some dramatic conflict.

What dramatic conflict can you have when one of the characters is omipotent and omniscient? If he really is the son of god returned to Earth, then besides being a totally daft idea we already know how it ends: he sets himself up as King, kills instantly everyone who is in his opinion unworthy, and allows the remainder to happily surrender to his benevolent dictatorship.

George Bush may approve that scenario but few of the rest of us would. Alternatively, the son of god may decide he’s come back too soon and give us all another chance, by going away again, to return (yet again) at some future date.

Or he may be crucified again in some way, but that seems to be ruled out by the omnipotence thing. The last two endings really mean that the scriptwriters didn’t know how to end it so they simply put the ending off.

Or, of course, he turns out not to be the son of god after all but just a very naughty boy, as the Monty Python team put it.

I won’t tell you how the latest offering, The Second Coming (ABC 8.30pm Sunday), ends, but along the way there is a miracle in a football stadium (although he doesn’t make Luton win the Cup so he’s not all that omnipotent!). Also there is mass panic (atheists one assumes).

Written by Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk), the program is directed by Adrian Shergold for ITV in Britain.

There is a very interesting documentary to be made one day about the courageous struggle of progressives in Hollywood in the ’30s and ’40s to force (or sneak) even mildly left-wing films past the reactionary self-censorship of the studio moguls.

The relatively few anti-fascist films that were made cost those responsible their jobs a decade later under McCarthyism.

Until that film is made, however, we will have to make do with items like Hollywood and the Holocaust (SBS 7.30pm Friday). Narrated by Gene Hackman, it covers such things as Hollywood’s business links with Germany that resulted in American newsreels being often nothing more than direct translations of Nazi propaganda.

The new police series Murphy’s Law (ABC 8.30pm Fridays) features yet another damaged, guilt-ridden hero (played with panache by James Nesbitt).

The series is quite entertaining, although you can see the major plot twists coming a mile away. It gets by on the professionalism of those involved.

There are so many of these British cop shows that the scriptwriters do seem to be running low on ideas: the climax of the first episode here, a race against time to stop a live person being cremated by the baddies, is lifted almost intact from a recent episode of another British cop show Blue Murder.

The 60th anniversary of the defeat of fascism will be marked on SBS by the screening of a nine-part series Germany’s War: The Liberation (SBS 7.30pm Saturdays), a co-production between German TV network ZDF, the American History Channel, Britain’s Channel 4 and Russian television.

The inclusion of Russian Television may offset the extreme anti-Soviet bias of the History Channel, but I doubt it. Although the lion’s share of the fighting, the key battles, the largest aggregations of men and weapons, were all on the Eastern Front, I note with concern that the first three episodes of Germany’s War: The Liberation are concerned with D-Day, Monte Cassino in Italy, and the liberation of Paris.

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