The Guardian 31 August, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun 4 September — Sat 10 September


If you had to choose one word to sum up the essence of the Broadway musical, "light", "bright" or "bouncy" would probably come to mind, along with "dazzling", "glitzy" and "colorful". And so too, I think, would "trite", "shallow" and "glib".

For the Broadway musical theatre was not noted for depth or meaningful content. Suffice to note that the exceedingly tentative raising of racial prejudice in South Pacific was so ground-breaking it won the show a Pultizer Prize!

This week’s episode of Broadway: The American Musical (ABC 7.30pm Sundays) covers the period of shows like South Pacific — 1943 to 1960, the period that began with the record-breaking Oklahoma! and the return of the story to pre-eminence in musicals.

It included the genuinely ground-breaking On the Town, in which an exuberant team of novices — Leonard Bernstein, Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Jerome Robbins — produced the quintessential musical comedy about a trio of sailors on shore leave.

The period ended in 1959 with the death of Oscar Hammerstein II and the success of ponderous, stodgy great lumps like My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music.

As usual in this series, there is some rare footage to be seen, including "never-before-broadcast" footage of Jerome Robbins’ choreography for On The Town, 1960 TV footage of Rex Harrison re-­enacting ‘I’m an Ordinary Man’ from My Fair Lady, and 1950s footage of the original Guys and Dolls cast performing in London.

Good to see that the daily press has finally caught up to just how good New Tricks (ABC 8.30pm Sundays) really is. Suddenly it’s being recommended by all the pundits. Mind you, some of them are the same TV scribes who can get worked up about who’s going to win Australian Idol.

All the same, New Tricks is a good show, well acted by a team of mature, experienced and very talented performers (Amanda Redman, James Boland, Dennis Waterman and Alun Armstrong). The regulars are backed up by high quality guest stars, this week Stephen Tompkinson and Honor Blackman.

A BBC production, New Tricks is a police show. Like most British cop shows, it seems more credible than its American counterparts.

Although it benefits from first rate direction by Graham Theakston, what gives the show its edge is the writing, by Nick Fisher. He not only gives New Tricks welcome moments of humour, he makes it good humoured.

And the mysteries themselves are many and varied. This week, the team is faced with the frustration of a murderer whose guilt they cannot prove. But Superintendent Pullman has a dirty trick up her sleeve that makes the retired members of her team very proud of her.

If the doings of the coppers in New Tricks are credible, the real-life activities of the Tasmanian Marine Police verge on the incredible. These self-effacing, down-to-earth men and women are seen this week in Real Life Water Rats (ABC 8.00pm Tuesdays) rescuing people who’ve fallen down cliffs, winching injured bush-walkers out of narrow gorges, coming to the aid of a disabled yacht in heavy seas and being towed in scuba gear behind a boat while searching by touch for a body in the kelp.

Even their training is stressful, with several of the team very ill at ease during regular training (in a pool) for how to exit a helicopter that has ditched upside down at sea. Sooner them than me, I can tell you!

This is another good series, although it could not be more different to the preceding. What makes it is the viewer’s constant awareness that this is real, that these are real people.

And, to its credit, although the commentary tries to boost the drama and the danger all the time, the coppers themselves don’t. It’s worth a look.

The villains of last year’s Beslan school siege in Russia (in which over 350 people were killed, more than half of them children) were surely the Chechen terrorists who cold bloodedly chose children and young mothers as their victims.

They shot parents in front of their children and deliberately deprived children and mothers of water. Beslan (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday) does its best to make the Russian authorities the villains of the piece.

It could probably have been handled better, but then, when can they not?

Before the Du Pont Chem­ical company invented Nylon, the most popular fibre for everything from ships’ sails to shirts to ropes was hemp. A natural, organic fibre with many remarkable properties, hemp was a major part of life.

Then the US government obligingly launched a campaign to simultaneously promote and ban the use of hemp as a substitute for tobacco. Promotional films declared that Reefer Madness was sweeping the country, that hemp in the form of marijuana was turning America’s younger generations into "insane murderers", "sex-crazed maniacs", "heroin addicts" and "Communists" — and sometimes a combination of all four.

Hemp was banned, Nylon and its clones were off and running, and the US has been waging a war on the weed ever since.

In the darkly comic Grass (SBS 10.00pm Tuesday), director Ron Mann and actor (and pot activist) Woody Harrelson follow the trail of dubious 20th century propaganda, legitimate scientific enquiry and knee-jerk policing that spawned modern-day US narcotics policy.

The weakness of the program is its concentration on the drug while largely ignoring the Du Pont/nylon/hemp connection.

The real villain in this film however, is Harry J Anslinger, a man who almost single-handedly instigated the international war on marijuana. Appointed as the first head of the US Federal Bureau of Narcotics, Anslinger spent millions of dollars in his crusade to uproot the weed from society, eventually influencing the United Nations’ decision to ban trafficking of the drug globally.

US jails filled to overflowing with drug offenders, is just one of the products of his policies.

It seems the reason Midsomer Murders (ABC 7.30pm Saturdays) is being repeated only a couple of months after it was last shown is because it is so popular. Apparently viewers respond to its unsophisticated "puzzle" plots and simple characterisations.

Made for commercial TV in Britain, the series’ extraordinarily high body count amongst the villagers of the fictional Midsomer district drew unfavourable comment in the British media (and, one hopes, from at least some viewers).

The producers, no doubt conscious of their social responsibilities, decided to limit the murders to one per episode, but the viewers — apparently a bloodthirsty lot devoted to cheap thrills — actually complained. So they went back to multiple murders per episode.

In commercial TV, when it’s a contest between ratings and culture (not to mention credibility), ratings win every time.

This week, stolid DCI Tom Barnaby (John Nettles) and his even more stolid Sgt Dan Scott (John Hopkins) investigate the murder of a race-horse owner. Even after they have worked out that all the members of the owner’s syndicate are being killed off, they prove quite ineffective at protecting the remaining owners.

Still, you can see why the series is popular: this episode has several brutal murders as well as rape, madness and video games.

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