The Guardian 28 September, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun October 2 — Sat October 8

At the beginning of the 20th Century the Northwest Passage was still the holy grail of polar exploration. As this week’s final episode of The Search For The Northwest Passage (ABC 7.30pm Sundays) goes on to show the Passage, like the holy grail itself, was a chimera: it did not in fact exist.

Not in the form that was wanted, at any rate: a viable, navigable route from Europe to the spice islands of the East across the top of Canada. Even after the Norwegian Roald Amundsen successfully sailed from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the ice (spending two winters in the ice in the process), the "passage" remained elusive, changing constantly with the drifting ice flows.

Only today, thanks to the ravages of global warming, is a navigable passage opening up (and the US is already arguing with Canada about who will control it).

The program is curiously vague about some details of Amundsun’s expedition, but it does show that he succeeded by learning from the indigenous people of the Arctic, the Inuit, lessons he later used to beat Scott to the South Pole.

This is a superior documentary of the partially dramatised variety, mixing reality and re-creation astutely.

The largest investment project currently underway in Africa is the oil pipeline from Chad through Cameroon to the coast, a project run primarily by US oil giant Exxon Mobil.

Three quarters of Chad’s nine million people exist at present on less than 90c a day. Petrodollars will, it is claimed, transform the country.

They are more likely to play a part in installing a strong military government opposed to nationalising the country’s oil and dedicated to looking after the interests of Exxon Mobil!

As Africa: US Oil’s New Target in the Cutting Edge slot (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday) shows, the US — in its feverish search for new sources of oil — has set its sights on the whole of the coastal sweep of West Africa. In the Gulf of Guinea, tiny Sao Tomé alone has some 24 billion barrels of oil off its coast.

To secure these new oil sources for itself, and in a merging of foreign and energy policy, the US plans to establish new military and Marine bases in West Africa. For the US is becoming desperate about its future energy supplies.

The USA leads the world in per capita energy consumption. The country’s demand for oil is constantly exceeding supply and more than half the oil required by the USA now comes from overseas.

However, it has to compete with an increasingly successful and aggressive major competitor in the global hunt for oil — China. And at some point in the next twenty years all the oil wells in the USA will have been pumped dry.

The US military also relies on access to a secure oil supply. Securing an alternative supply is therefore an issue of urgency for the world’s military superpower.

The invasion of Iraq has not relieved the situation as the price of crude oil remains high. The American military in Iraq is currently importing the oil it needs.

Africa: US Oil’s New Target was originally scheduled to be screened at the end of August, under the title Africa: America’s New Oil Target. The subtle differences in the titles may or may not be significant.

Either way it’s clearly a program that’s well worth watching.

When I was at school, the Queen of the Britons who rose up against the Roman invaders and led her people in a glorious but doomed fight was named Boadicea and she had scythes attached to the hubs of her chariot wheels so that she could slice her enemies as she rode into battle.

Wrong on most details, but correct in essence, according to Tony Robinson in this week’s Fact Or Fiction (ABC 8.30pm Thursdays). Her name, of course, was really Boudica, her chariot was of wickerwork and had no blades on the wheel hubs, and she was Queen of only one British tribe, the Icini in Norfolk.

In Roman Britain, the Icini, as a subject people, paid tribute to Rome but otherwise lived in peace with the country’s conquerers. But when the Romans seized Icini lands, she protested.

For her mutiny, she was flogged and her daughters brutally raped. She must have been a woman of strong character for she not only led the Icini in a vengeful revolt but united other tribes under her leadership.

Boudica wiped out a Roman army of 1500 soldiers and burned three towns including the capital Colchester. But her forces, that had grown to 200,000, were to prove no match for the disciplined, well-trained professional army of the Romans and Britain spent the next 300 years under Roman rule.

The first episode of Auschwitz: The Nazis And The Final Solution (ABC 9.25pm Thursdays) reminded us that Auschwitz was built to house not Jews but Polish political prisoners. Episode two, this week, points out that its extermination role was similarly created for the elimination of Soviet POWs.

But in late 1941 and through 1942, the Nazis were finalising their plans for making more space for the "Aryan German" population by concentrating the Jewish population in camps and working them to death. This was the "final solution" for what the Nazis were wont to call "the Jewish question", agreed at a conference at Wannsee in January 1942, presided over by the SS.

It was systematic, cold-blooded and profitable. What comes through strongly in this series however is the way so many Germans (and Slovaks, as in this week’s episode) not only accepted the Nazis’ racist propaganda at the time, but still do.

In October 1941, the plans for the new extension to Auschwitz at the nearby village of Birkenau, already designed to house 100,000 people in the most terrible conditions, were altered: an additional 30,000 people would be forced into the wretched blocks.

Suffering was built into the very plans. Ten thousand Soviet war prisoners were put to work building the extension. They were the victims of appalling brutality, singled out by the Nazis as "subhuman" and frequently beaten to death.

To speed up the killing of the many Jews that were coming into the camps, the Nazis adapted the mobile vans in which mentally ill people had been gassed by the "adult euthanasia" teams using carbon monoxide exhaust fumes.

But it was not enough, so they turned to specially built gas chambers designed to look like shower rooms, and killed through the use of Zyklon B (cyanide gas, made by German chemical trust I G Farben).

The Nazis began to scour the whole of Europe for more and more people to bring to Auschwitz and kill. In this regard, the episode has some rare footage (and skilfull re-enactment) of the clerical fascist regime in Slovakia at work.

This is an intensely interesting series that so far is a credit to its writer-producer, the Creative Director of BBC History, BAFTA winner Laurence Rees.

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