The Guardian 14 September, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun 18 Sept — Sat 24 Sept

The final episode of Broad­way: The American Musical (ABC 7.30pm Sunday) covers the last 25 years and continues to treat the business of Broadway as the arbiter of quality.

Despite the upbeat tone of the episode, Broadway’s sterility is clearly evident: the big hits are either ponderous quasi operettas from England, like Les Misérables and The Phantom of the Opera, or reworkings of successful films, like 42nd Street, La Cage aux Folles and The Producers.

Incestuously, several of the hit shows are about putting on a Broadway musical!

For many "history" programs on television, history is not a study of society’s development dependant on objective conditions and factors, but a recounting of a series of isolated, frequently random, events.

For these programs, no theory is too crackpot to be advanced. "It might have happened like that" is sufficient defence.

The result is series like the three-part Ancient Discoveries (SBS 7.30pm Sundays) whose examination of weaponry, shipping and the harnessing of power in the ancient world is seriously flawed.

In the third episode, for example, someone described as an "experimental archaeologist" says that the people of the ancient world "were using solar power possibly and maybe even electricity — we can’t be sure".

Oh come on — of course we can! The technical development necessary for the production and utilisation of electricity simply wasn’t there then, so pull the other one.

For all its pretensions, this kind of program actually assumes that ancient people, people at a certain stage of economic development, lacked intelligence. So when the makers of such a program come across an example of ancient people using reason to augment their technical development they leap about shouting that it "turns history on its head"!

In this series, the ancient Roman flour mill at Arles in France, which had had eight pairs of water wheels allowing it to mill enough flour to feed the 12,500 inhabitants of the nearby Roman city of Arelate, is held up as evidence that "the Romans employed large-scale industry, predating the industrial revolution by hundreds of years".

An isolated phenomenon does not make an industrial revolution and it would take many hundreds of years to develop the necessary means of production (as well as the necessary labour force) without which no one could "employ large-scale industry".

By contrast, a science series of some importance is the four-part Light Fantastic (SBS 8.30pm Sundays) that explores the history of the understanding of light.

Cambridge scholar Simon Schaffer, who narrates this enlightening BBC series, says its point de départ is that "the past of the sciences is presented on its own terms, showing the significance of forces like theology, culture and economic development on the development of ideas.

"To imagine there have always been scientists is very misleading — before the 19th century no one calls themselves a scientist, they don’t cut up the world like that. I look at the preoccupations of the clergymen, medics, industrialists, engineers and professors responsible for the breakthroughs.

"Take Newton: you can’t understand what he is doing in the 1660s, experimenting with prisms and sunlight, unless you realise he is obsessed by the problems of religion and God. Light interests him because it’s the principle of divinity, or how creation happens."

The first episode examines the early Greek and Arab scholars, and later Europeans such as Descartes and Newton, who all tried to understand light to gain a better understanding of God.

Drawn Together (SBS 9.00pm Mondays) is described — with tongue firmly in cheek, one assumes — as the "first ever animated reality-TV series" to be seen here. The seven-week series presents a world where eight cartoon characters from various genres of animation are brought together to live under one roof.

The characters leave their "animated" reality and enter a world where their cartoon universes collide with a bang, combining different styles of animation and different personalities all ‘drawn together’.

The eight stars / housemates represent different iconic archetypes from the world of animation. The characters, all with different lifestyles and personalities, create alliances with some of their housemates, but often the fighting and backstabbing takes centre stage.

This parodies many clichés of "reality" television. Also, the characters are prone to break into song, the songs also being spoofs from various genres of animation but with original lyrics.

Drawn Together is a Comedy Central production created by Matt Silverstein and Dave Jeser and is based on characters developed by Silverstein, Jeser and Jordan Young.

Broken China: The Earthquake That Never Happened (ABC 11.10pm Monday) contains "rare footage not seen previously outside China" documenting its worst natural disaster, the 1976 earthquake that levelled the city of Tang Shan.

According to the program, the Chinese government of the day denied the severity of the ’quake and rejected all offers of aid.

I don’t remember a 25-minute drama series called Night And Day being repeated this week (ABC 12:05am Tuesday — ie late Monday night) but the ABC describes it as a "compelling mixture of romance, comedy and thriller" and a "ground-breaking drama series unlike any other".

So there!

There is another episode in the same slot the following night.

It is followed by a repeat of the Fire Burn episode of the original Taggart, the Scottish police series with former Sydney New Theatre actor Mark McManus in the title role (ABC 12:30am Tuesday).

One of the best police series, Taggart even survived not only the death of its central character but later the death of his successor!

There is another episode of Night And Day on Tuesday night (ABC 12:05am Wed) followed by an episode of the well-researched and very well-made series The Battleships (ABC 12.30am Wednesday).

Battleships were the most awesome war-machines ever built, their construction revolutionised by the advent of steam and steel.

After The Battleships is Mademoiselle Fifi (ABC 1.25am Wednesday), a 1944 RKO movie adapted from Guy de Maupassant’s novella Boule de Suif. Well regarded, despite its low budget, it stars Simone Simon as a prostitute at the time of the Franco-Prussian War.

She refuses to sleep with a Prussian officer who is holding up the progress of the coach in which she is a passenger. When she yields to the entreaties of her fellow passengers and gives herself to the Prussian, the other passengers shun her.

The film was directed by Robert Wise, who had edited Orson Welles’ classic Citizen Kane and also directed the stylish Curse of the Cat People, The Set-Up and The Day the Earth Stood Still. (He also directed West Side Story and The Sound of Music but we shouldn’t hold that against him.)

The splendid British Isles: A Natural History is currently being repeated in the Go Wild! slot (ABC 6.00pm Saturdays). This series should appeal to intelligent older children as well as adults.

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