The Guardian 21 September, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun 25 Sept ó Sat 1 Oct


Itís a week for historical documentary series, with a surprisingly good one to kick it off: The Search For The Northwest Passage (ABC 7.30pm Sundays), a two part series from Britainís Channel Four.

Partly dramatised in the now fashionable manner, the subject of the first episode is Sir John Franklinís lavish expedition of 1845, which disappeared without trace, a mystery which has finally been solved using modern science and the 19th century testimony of Inuit hunters.

The causes of the Franklin expedition disaster? Lack of knowledge of the Arctic, and lead poisoning.

It is perhaps logical that the US government, high priest of "private enterprise", would use private contractors to service US military supply lines in Iraq and operate US military bases. That it also uses them to protect US diplomats and even generals, as though its huge military machine were inadequate to the task, says much about the corporate domination of US official thinking.

The PBS Frontline program Private Warriors screening in the Cutting Edge timeslot (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday) explores the use of the private sector to prosecute the war in Iraq.

Private military contractors comprise the second largest force in Iraq after the US armed services, far outnumbering allied troops. KBR, a Halliburton subsidiary, is the largest contractor in Iraq with a $US16 billion dollar logistics deal.

Private Warriors also explores the world of private security firms like Blackwater, Aegis, and Erinys that provide armed protection for US government officials, government offices, military installations and even military commanders. A private security guard at Erinys makes $US400 dollars a day, three times what a soldier makes.

Erinys, a South African company incorporated in the UK, is paid $50 million a year to protect the US Army Corps of Engineers. Erinys is staffed with an assortment of ex-special forces and police from around the world.

"Americans would like to withdraw troop members," says Andy Melville, head of Erinys in Iraq. "And perhaps it is part of their policy to reduce troop members and replace them with private security contractors."

The new history series Fact Or Fiction (ABC 8.30pm Thursdays) is written and presented by Tony Robinson (Baldrick in Black Adder) who has been responsible for a number of excellent historical programs in recent years, notably The Real Da Vinci Code.

In the first episode of this new series, King Harold, Robinson recounts the background, life and career of the English king who, but for a lucky shot by a Norman archer, would today be hailed as the saviour of his country.

Had Harold not had the bad luck to cop an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings, that battle would, Robinson notes, be as renowned as Trafalgar or the Battle of Britain. Instead, Harold is remembered as the guy who lost England to William the Conqueror.

That is doubly unfair, for Harold had just come from winning a battle at Stamford Bridge against a Norse invasion force, a victory that finally brought an end to Viking invasions of Britain.

Robinson also notes that although the fusion of Norman and English culture that eventually followed the Norman victory at Hastings was ultimately to the countryís advantage, it also imposed on the country an aristocracy that was totally divorced from the people, a gap that is still felt today.

The program is interestingly filmed: there is no dramatisation, just Robinson taking us to the various sites, and much of the filming uses modern imagery in place of historical paintings and the like; when Robinson is telling us about Haroldís return from his unfortunate mission to Normandy, the accompanying image is of the Cross Channel ferry coming in.

This is an intelligent series that does not talk down to the viewer or over-dramatise its subject matter. It (and its scholarship) is quietly impressive.

The British-made six-part series Auschwitz: The Nazis And The Final Solution (ABC 9.25pm Thursdays) is excellent and well worth viewing even for those who think they know all about the topic already.

The Nazi prison camp at Auschwitz was originally set up to take not Jews but Polish political prisoners, suspected partisans and the like. Later these were joined by Soviet POWs and civilians, including Jews.

Then it became part of German extermination policies against both Jews and Slavs. The series chillingly recreates a high-level Nazi meeting discussing how to feed the German army in the War; the meeting cold-bloodedly agrees that the Soviet population will have to be starved of food ("millions will die of starvation", said with a shrug) so that the Wermacht can have an assured supply.

To the delight of German chemical trust I G Farben, Auschwitz was located adjacent to water and coal, thus placing desirable raw materials for the production of artificial rubber next to a source of slave labour.

The program uses eyewitness testimony from former Polish inmates of Auschwitz as well as that of German soldiers. One anti-Semitic former Nazi soldier recounts killing prisoners in the early stages of the War, without any signs of remorse even now.

In between the interviews the history of the camp is recreated in very believable re-enactments. It struck me that these re-enactments are more anti-Nazi in their imagery (the look of the SS officers, the body language) than would have been the case if the series had been made in the US.

The length of the series allows for considerable detail and I found the first episode absorbing. The episode recreates the Nazisí plans for the reconstruction of the village of Auschwitz as a new model town for German settlers in the area, after the Polish locals had been removed, of course.

Significantly, the plans for the new town include provision for the slave labour camp just down the road. This series looks like it should become essential viewing.

Last year, the first two episodes of the English cop show 55 Degrees North were distributed to the media, but the expected series did not materialise. Now it has surfaced again, this time in all six episodes (ABC 8.30pm Fridays).

Made by BBC Scotland, it is actually set in the northern English city of Newcastle, where London copper D/S Dominic "Nicky" Cole is transferred when he reports a senior colleague for "violence against a suspect".

Nicky takes his uncle, Errol, and seven year-old nephew, Matty, with him to his new posting. But in Newcastle, he finds himself stuck on a permanent nightshift, working alone across all departments: homicide, marine, robbery and vice - with little, or no, back-up support.

This is a "tough" police series, in which most of the coppers have flaws and some are clearly bent. Nicky (played by Don Gilet) is black, and prejudice is also a prominent factor. Others in the regular cast include Dervla Kirwan (from Ballykissangel) and Andrew Dunn (Dinner Ladies).

Back to index page