The Guardian 19 October, 2005
TV programs worth watching
Sunday October 23 — Sat October 29
It was English filmmaker Peter Watkins, in his first documentary feature for the BBC, who introduced the practice of shooting historical documentaries about pre-20th century subjects as though television had existed in their day.z
Watkins’ 1964 film Culloden, about the last battle fought on British soil (in 1746), used the full battery of modern television effects — including a hand-held camera and "on the spot" interviews — to recreate a totally authentic picture of the effect of war on ordinary people.
Watkins’ deliberate introduction of "television" into an 18th century subject had a definite and legitimate purpose: to achieve a remarkable immediacy and urgency.
Since then, however, his innovation has become simply a "trick of the trade" for lazy television producers and directors who don’t seem to see anything at all anachronistic in having people in, say, the 14th century talking directly to the camera as though television was an everyday object for them.
This week the practice intrudes annoyingly and disconcertingly into Tim Dunn’s two-part program for the BBC, The Divine Michelangelo (ABC 7.30pm Sunday). This is a pity, for the program is otherwise very interesting.
It is part standard TV documentary about recreating some of Michelangelo’s great works and also investigating how the originals were made and transported.
Mixed in with this is a re-enacted drama-documentary about Michelangelo’s life. It is in these re-enactments that we get the grating anachronism of Michelangelo — supposedly alone in his studio — leaning towards the camera, waggling his chisel at us, and confiding to the television audience his private opinion of his patron or disclosing his latest ambition.
Anachronistic period productions are now so commonplace that this week we have two in succession on the ABC, although they differ in the form the anachronism takes. In the new two-part drama series Casanova (ABC 8.35pm Sundays), it manifests itself in 20th-21st century dialogue that sits very uneasily in an 18th century tale.
It is also seen in the characters’ very knowing approach to the techniques of modern filmmaking. For instance, early in the first episode, the elderly Casanova (Peter O’Toole, looking suitably raddled after a life-time of humping and jumping out of balconies) recalls one such "adventure", reading the dialogue from the book of reminiscences he is writing.
In flashback, the young Casanova (David Tennant) repeats the dialogue that O’Toole is reading, then pauses to ask O’Toole, off camera (and 60 years away), what the next line of dialogue is.
I found the program fitfully engaging, but not something you would want to race home to see. As the aging roué, O’Toole is his usual capable self. As the young Casanova, Tennant is brash but lacks the virility that the original must have had to excess.
The ABC describes the program as funny, but the wisecracks that provide most of what humour there is are once again a little too modern. On the other hand, if the spectacle of plentiful humping is your idea of comedy, then you are bound to be pleased.
Dining With The Devil, screening in the Cutting Edge slot (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday), is a program whose content cannot be trusted one little bit. It purports to provide "an insight into the collaboration between the CIA and Palestinian security services, a relationship which has been going on for decades in secret".
Perhaps it has, but how can you trust a program about the CIA in which the PLO is identified throughout as "the terrorists". All the interviews with former top CIA and Pentagon "anti-terror" experts would have had to be vetted by their respective agencies before being used.
So, a program to take with a heavy pinch of salt, but nevertheless interesting for its depiction of US intelligence involvement — and wholesale meddling — in Palestinian affairs.
Vince Cannistraro, former head of the CIA’s "anti-terror" department, comments that maintaining a long-term "channel of communication and influence" between Arabic-speaking CIA agent Robert Ames and Yarafat aide Ali Hassan Salameh was "fairly effective in moderating Palestinian behaviour particularly the evolution of the PLO itself".
To what extent this is information and to what extent disinformation is the question. Approach with caution.
Tony Robinson’s subject in this week’s Fact Or Fiction is The Real Macbeth (ABC 8.30pm Thursdays). Shakespeare’s historical plays are based on popular histories of his day, but Shakespeare re-worked the historical material to encompass his own ideological position: the essential need for a strong central monarchy to unite the realm and ensure the country’s continued development.
The emergent merchant class was pushing against the remants of feudalism and the groundwork was being laid for a new system, capitalism. By promoting a strong central monarchy, Shakespeare was a being partisan for this new — and, for the time, progressive — system.
Robinson shows how Macbeth fits in to Shakespeare’s politics. Even the witches have a political role to play.
The two-part dramatised documentary series Pioneers of Love is being screened in the Storyline Australia slot (SBS 8.30pm Thursdays). The series follows the lives of an anti-Tsarist "aristocratic Russian dissident" Leandro Illin and a Ngadjon woman, Kitty Clarke.
The Illin family fled Russia for North Queensland in 1910. There, Leandro met Kitty, a 20-year-old Aboriginal widow with three children.
Their relationship produced a child, and brought down on them the wrath of the Protector of Aborigines. They had to flee police attempting to take Kitty’s children.
Later, after anti-Russian riots following the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, the Illin family left for South America, but Kitty — being a full-blood Aborigine — was not allowed to go. So Leandro remained behind with her and their children.
After Kitty died in childbirth on an isolated station, Leandro threw himself into helping the Aboriginal people on the property. He died in 1946, but his ideals of "truth, justice and equality" were passed on to his son-in-law, Richard Hoolihan, who in turn passed them on to Eddie Mabo when they founded the Aboriginal Advancement League.
Leandro was acknowledged by Eddie Mabo when he won the historic High Court case awarding the first Native Title claim in Australia. In 1998, Kitty’s people, the Ngadjon Aborigines, won back the rights to their traditional land.
The makers of the two-part compilation documentary World War II In Colour, screening in As It Happened (SBS 7.30pm Saturdays), seem to be of the view that black & white newsreel footage is of no interest to modern viewers: they want colour!
So instead of choosing the best footage to illustrate a thesis, they select only footage in colour. While some splendid footage is included (material shot by Hollywood directors William Wyler, George Stevens and John Ford for instance), it does seem unnecessarily limiting.