The Guardian 17 August, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun August 21 — Sat August 27

Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are bawdy parables that make serious points with earthy humour. Sally Wainwright’s take on The Wife of Bath’s Tale in the BBC’s updated retelling of the great English poet’s Canterbury Tales (ABC 9.25pm Sundays) is all about sex but is neither bawdy nor humorous. Sad, tragic (in a minor key), or pathetic are the adjectives that come to mind.

Avie Luthra, who wrote the script for one of the other tales (The Sea Captain’s Tale) put his finger on the problem with this series when he said of his own effort: "Chaucer’s tale is more lightweight and comic, whereas I saw the sea captain and his wife as tragic figures in a story about the hazards of adultery."

Sally Wainwright has made The Wife Of Bath into a tale of sex, obsession and the desire to be young forever, set in the cut-throat world of TV soap opera production.

Julie Walters plays Beth, a 53-year-old television star; Bill Nighy is her fourth husband who confesses that he has been having an affair for so long that his son by it "starts school this week".

Beth seeks solace in the arms of her young co-star (Paul Nicholls) and then takes drastic action to try to stay young.

Human beings are not the end-product of evolution. Changes to our environment will mean changes in the evolution of homo sapiens.

In National Geographic’s Tiny Humans: Finding ‘Hobbits’ In Flores (ABC 8.30pm Thursday), scientists investigating the cave-dwelling pygmy humans whose remains were found last year on the Indonesian island of Flores have concluded that they evolved from homo sapiens to cope with the lack of food on the island, as did other animal species restricted to the available resources.

This prehistoric race was tiny. They stood just 1.1m tall, about the size of a modern three-year-old, and were nicknamed ‘hobbits’ by the scientists who discovered them. They lived alongside modern humans for more than 15,000 years.

At Yankee Stadium in New York in 1936, German boxer Max Schmelling, the darling of the Nazi regime, creamed Black American champion Joe Louis. The defeat of Louis was crushing to black Americans, who had come to regard him as the only black man who could meet and defeat whites on equal terms.

Two years later they were re-matched for the heavyweight championship of the world. More than 90,000 people crowded into Yankee Stadium to watch the encounter, and countless millions more — the largest radio audience in history — listened around the world.

The Fight in the Hot Docs timeslot (SBS 10.00pm Tuesday) tells the interweaving stories of these two men, culminating in what was one of the most politicised sporting events in history.

The pressure on each fighter was enormous. Joe Louis was not only fighting for the honour of his country, he was literally holding the hopes of all of black America in his fists. For Max Schmeling, the fight would demonstrate Hitler’s racial theories of white superiority.

This week’s episode of Midsomer Murders (ABC 7.30pm Saturdays) was originally scheduled to screen in June. It’s not listed as a repeat so I don’t know if the earlier screening was cancelled or not.

For a "police procedural", Midsomer Murders seems re­markably free of police procedure. DCI Tom Barnaby, as played by John Nettles, never seems to be bothered by superiors, or even to feel the need to establish an incident room, despite it being standard practice for British police when there has been a murder.

He never has a team of more than his sergeant even though his police station is full of coppers apparently just walking about. Except for the police surgeon none of the other coppers seem to have any role other than to string blue and white striped tape around the scene of the latest murder.

And Midsomer and surrounding district does seem to be crawling with murderers. Dead bodies pop up in numbers that rival the Black Death.

However, as I said in June, this new series is better written than the previous ones, particularly as regards the colourful English village settings. This week’s episode, Dead In The Water, takes place during Midsomer’s regatta week, and it’s the body of the Chairman of the Rowing Club that inconveniently bobs up during the first race.

The mixing of middle class gentility (with a dash of the upper classes thrown in) and murder is a very English literary tradition, and this TV series unashamedly apes that tradition. And as you would expect of middle class gentility, it is mildly amusing and mildly intriguing.

The second episode of Lost Highway: The Story Of Country Music (ABC 10.10pm Saturdays) charts the transition of country music from folk art to purely commercial enterprise, and the effect this had on the music itself.

The "hillbilly" music that came out of Kentuckey and Alabama blended two distinct forms: on the one hand the language and traditions of 18th century rural England and the English reformed churches ("Chapel"), on the other the African inspired work songs and gospel style of the black rural labourers.

This folk form was popularised with the spread of records and radio. In Texas, however, conditions caused it to change. There the music was performed in "honky-tonks", bars catering to oil workers that dispensed music, dancing and liquor in equal proportions.

The raucous nature of these joints called for louder, more insistent music styles with microphones and electric guitars, and "honky-tonk" was born, quickly becoming — thanks to radio and records — the dominant form of country music. It is epitomised in the drink-sodden, grief-ridden career of Hank Williams.

Then along came Elvis and rock’n’roll, and the kids deserted honky-tonk for the new music. The executives of the record companies with an investment in country music responded by abandoning country music’s roots and changing its form to a more mellow, commercial pop music (called "the Nashville sound") deliberately aimed at the audience that did not like rock.

The "hillbilly" form of country music would now be restricted to folk festivals. The new attitude is epitomised in this series by a very popular singer (millions of country records sold) who clearly didn’t give a toss about the commercial takeover of country music: "I was out there to sell records!" (which is another way to say "I was out there to make money!").

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