The Guardian 6 July, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun 10 July — Sat 16 July


The English choreographer Frederick Ashton turned Felix Mendelssohn’s beautiful music inspired by William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream into a ballet in 1964 for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.

Called The Dream, it condensed the plot of Shakespeare’s play to the forest scenes, focusing on the fairy kingdom of Oberon and Titania and the lovers and rustics who stumble into it one moonlit, magical night.

The American Ballet Theatre, in co-operation with the PBS series Dance in America, produced a new production of The Dream to celebrate Ashton’s centennial. As The Dream With The American Ballet Theatre (ABC 2.00pm Sunday) it was recorded live at the Orange County Performing Arts Centre in California.

And that’s what’s wrong with it: although the ABC’s notes state that Anthony Dowell, who staged the ballet, "worked closely with the Dance In America team to translate the ballet for television", it is in fact a straight-forward filming of a stage performance using multiple cameras placed around the theatre.

It has not been rethought — least of all reinvented — for the screen. Most of the time the camera is so far back it’s like watching from the rear of the gods.

A ballet film can give us close-ups of dancers’ feet, hands, faces, the arch of their back. This production seldom gets closer than a medium shot — everything is distanced, and so, as a result, is our involvement.

Very disappointing.

Dramatically Black (SBS 8.30pm Sundays) is a series of four half-hour Indigenous dramas from the Australian Film Commission’s Indigenous Unit. Several of them have won awards at international film festivals.

First up is this week’s offering, Green Bush. Directed by Warwick Thornton, it won Panorama Best Short at this year’s Berlin Film Festival.

The next phase for these filmmakers is the Long Black initiative, which will focus on feature-length projects.

Don’t overlook the three-part documentary series The Power of Nightmares (SBS 7.30pm Tuesdays) which puts forward the view that the idea that we are threatened by a hidden and organised terrorist network is an illusion.

It is a myth, the program claims, that has spread, unchallenged, throughout politics, the security services and the international media.

At the heart of the story are two groups: the American neo-­conservatives and the radical Islamists. Together these two groups, the program claims, created today’s nightmare vision of an organised terror network — a fantasy that politicians then found restored their power and authority in a disillusioned age. Those with the darkest fears became the most powerful.

The trafficking of women and children for prostitution is a global problem. The United Nations estimates that more than one million children are forced into sexual slavery each year. Some of them are trafficked into Australia.

In Trafficked: The Child Sex Trade, screening in the Storyline Australia timeslot (SBS 8.30pm Thursday), former police office-turned-private investigator, Chris Payne, investigates this shocking crime.

"I think in Australia we can get rid of trafficking", says Payne. "[But] I wonder if we’re squandering this opportunity because, really, we’re indifferent to the trafficking and the plight of these women — and that astounds me. I mean the bottom line is that it’s slavery. It’s as simple as that."

As a member of the Australian Federal Police, Payne headed Paper Tiger, a special operation aimed at combating sex trafficking in the mid-1990s. For a decade he has been haunted by the case of "Nikkie", a young Thai girl found working in a Sydney brothel. Her rapid deportation stopped the police investigation in its tracks.

When these "contract girls" arrive in Australia, usually under false passports, they are immediately put to work in order to pay off contracts of $50,000. According to Payne, the girls hardly ever leave the brothels. "They have to work off $50,000 worth of customers, basically before they could earn for themselves."

This week’s Taggart episode, A Death Foretold (ABC 8.30pm Friday), is the last of the current series, and is one of the best: gripping, atmospheric, even thrilling, without the necessity for car chases, in fact everything a police series should be.

The new series of Doctor Who (ABC 7.30pm Satur­days) has set a new standard for the long-running sci-fi series, with excellent special effects but more importantly first rate writing.

This week’s episode, The Empty Child, is the first part of a two-parter. It is typically imaginative with a playful attitude to genre conventions, and is clearly pitched at adults rather than children.

The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston) frantically pursues a mysterious mauve spacecraft explaining to Rose (Billie Piper) that mauve (not red) is the galactic symbol for danger.

The object draws the Tardis to London during the Blitz of 1941, where the bombsites are being haunted by The Empty Child, a small unearthly child with a gas mask face who is searching for his Mummy.

There are also zombies who can be sent to bed, an intergalactic con-man with an invisible space ship, and nano-bots engaged in rampant cellular reconstruction.

When a one-legged woman wakes to find her missing leg has been regrown she shows Dr Constantine (Richard Wilson from One Foot In The Grave). He furrows his brow and asks hopefully: "Well, there is a war on; are you sure you just didn’t miscount them?"

More and more Americans are questioning the par­anoid attacks on civil liberties in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. This week SBS is repeating Unconstitutional, the latest documentary from Robert Greenwald (Uncovered: The War on Iraq).

"We created Unconstitutional (SBS 7.30pm Saturday) to show Americans the extent to which our civil liberties and our freedoms have been trampled upon by our government since 9/11", said Greenwald. "The more Americans understand what is at stake, and what has already been lost, the more determined we become to protect our rights."

By focusing on the per­sonal stories of real people, Unconstitutional reveals how paranoia, fear and racial profiling have led to major infringements on freedom and democracy without strengthening US national security.

Part three of The Blues: A Musical Journey (ABC 10.25pm Saturdays) is The Road To Memphis, by film director Richard Pearce (who made The Long Walk Home about the Memphis bus boycott, amongst others).

Memphis, with the first all-black radio station in the US, gave birth to a new style of blues in the hands of people like B B King. As one woman says, for black Americans, going to Memphis was like going to Paris.

A veteran black musician recalls the city’s heyday: "I said to a white man once, ‘if you could be black for one Saturday night on Beale St in Memphis, you would never want to be white again!’"

But today, as Rosco Gordon notes, Beale St is commercialised and gentrified. They’ve destroyed it, he says sadly.

Says director Richard Pearce: "The Blues is a chance to celebrate one of the last truly indigenous American art forms, before it all but disappears, swallowed whole by the rock’n’roll generation it spawned. Hopefully we’ll get there before it’s too late."

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