The Guardian 27 July, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun July 31 — Sat Aug 6

For the past 70 years, beginning in Soviet times and continuing today, archaeologists in Russia have been conducting extensive excavations in the city of Novgorod.

Once the most important trading centre in old Rus, Novgorod controlled a vast area of north-western Russia. One of the most important elements of the medieval Novgorod culture was the written language.

Since 1951, every year of archaeological excavation has supplied archaeologists working at Novgorod with new birch-bark scrolls, letters that document daily life in medieval Russia. The oldest birch-bark texts date back to the early 11th century and the latest date to the mid-15th century.

The diversity of birch-bark letters, written by Novgorodians of every social standing including peasants, artisans, merchants, and boyars (rich landlords), proves that literacy was widespread among people of Novgorod — an anomaly for the time as literacy in the rest of Europe was generally confined to the wealthy and the clergy.

Novgorod: Letters of the Year One Thousand, screening in the Lost Worlds’ timeslot (SBS 7.30pm Sunday), follows these ongoing excavations.

When I was growing up, and accompanied my mother shopping in Bondi Junction, I always stopped to look in the window of one particular shop. I cannot remember what it sold, but the window contained a large framed photograph of a portion of the footpath outside the shop.

A number of people were standing around looking at the footpath, a small portion of which had been blasted away. The caption informed us that the damage was done by a shell from a Japanese submarine firing from offshore.

The submarine was the mother-ship for three midget submarines that penetrated Sydney Harbour’s anti-sub nets and boom at midnight on Sunday May 31, 1942 and launched a surprise attack on harbour shipping. They sank the ferry Kuttabul and killed 21 Australian service personnel.

All the tiny subs were either sunk or scuttled and their two-man crews killed. You can see the remains of one sub (actually a composite of two of them) at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

To the fury of anti-fascist Australians, the dead Japanese were buried with full military honours. They had made a sneak attack on a sleeping city as part of their campaign to enslave us and impose a most cruel and brutal regime here, but they had to be buried as "gentlemen"!

In Sydney At War: The Untold Story (SBS 7.30pm Tuesday), director Claude Gonzalez maintains that the Australian military at the time wanted to create an "act of goodwill" that would possibly give Australian POWs some leniency with their captors in Changi and Burma. If so, the gesture did not work.

I suspect, however, that the "act of goodwill" had more to do with the fact that many military and political leaders at the time thought the conquering Japanese would shortly be marching down Martin Place.

Uri Avnery: Warrior For Peace, screening in the Hot Docs timeslot (SBS 10.00pm Tuesday), is a portrait of the veteran Israeli peace activist and journalist, whose writings The Guardian publishes from time to time.

Uri Avnery and his wife Rachel are the co-founders of Gush Shalom, the Peace Bloc, the driving centre of the Israeli peace movement. Gush Shalom opposes the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and other territory occupied in the 1967 war and calls for the Green Line (the pre-1967 border) to be established as "a border for peace between two free and sovereign states: Israel and Palestine".

Avnery’s opposition to Israeli aggression against the Palestinians and other neighbouring peoples has enraged the right in Israel. The head of the General Security Services proclaimed him Public Enemy #1, the offices of his newspaper were burned down and several attempts have been made on his life.

In 2002, the Swedish Parliament awarded Uri and Rachel Avnery its Right Livelihood Award, commonly regarded as the alternative Nobel Peace Prize, for their life-long struggle for peace. No Israeli official was present at the ceremony.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t find watching ordinary people exposing themselves to public derision very funny. Seeing someone you love to hate, like Johnny Howard, make a prat of himself on TV can be funny (or at least enjoyable).

However, in Chris Lilley’s one-man show We Can Be Heroes: Finding The Australian Of The Year (ABC 9.00pm Wednesdays) we are asked to laugh at his renditions of ordinary people who think — inappropriately — that they are about to amount to something.

Certainly his characters are dumb: sorely deluded souls without the sophistication to see how hopeless their dreams and projects are — or how gauche and painful they are as people.

Lilley wrote it and plays all the characters. Is it clever? Yes. Is it funny? Not to me.

Is the portrayal of the Asian character racist? Certainly seemed like it to me. Is the whole concept for the show misguided? Fatally.

The London bombings caus­ed This Mortal Coil, last week’s episode of DNA (ABC 8.30pm Thursdays), to be deferred to this week. The episode deals with Mary Claire King’s epic search for the breast cancer gene. Ms King was certain that one of the most common forms of cancer — breast cancer — could be inherited, and became obsessed with trying to prove it.

The program follows her 20-year quest, which eventually ended — given the way science and medicine are handled under capitalism — with both the gene and the genetic test for breast cancer that she had dreamed of, falling into the hands of a private company.

The new series in the ABC’s Go Wild! slot is British Isles: A Natural History (ABC 6.00pm Saturdays). An epic 16-part series about the evolution of Britain’s natural life — plants, animals and geography — it may sound a little parochial. It isn’t.

It’s an exceedingly interesting exploration of evolution at work, how it shaped the country side and how humans interacted with it. Made for Britons, rather than us foreigners, it is nevertheless fascinating — and very well made.

The series is presented by the very lively Alan Titchmarsh. The face of gardening on British TV, Titchmarsh is also a natural history enthusiast.

In the first episode, he takes us to places in Britain that we — and most Britons I suspect — have never seen and wouldn’t even recognise as being British: rugged, snow-clad peaks in Scotland resembling nothing so much as the Himalayas; and at the other end, coastal beaches warmed by the Gulf Stream where coconuts float ashore (the Scilly Isles).

He traces the effects of the Ice Age on the landscape and uses the place names of English towns to demonstrate that wolves and black bears once roamed there in quantity.

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