The Guardian 2 March, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun 6 March Sat 12 March


Dramatised documentary ("dramadoco") is fast becoming the favoured means of making a study of any historical subject. This week we have two: The Ancient Egyptians and In Search of the Brontes (ABC 2.00pm Sundays).

Based on letters written by the three sisters and "new research by historian Juliet Barker", the two-part series In Search of the Brontes allegedly "shatters the myths that have surrounded the sisters since their untimely deaths more than 150 years ago".

This may be over-stating the case a mite, I think. The series appears to have dropped any idea of a Wesleyan influence on the part of their Aunt Branwell, whom other biographers have credited with encouraging Anne's tendency to "religious melancholia".

The program asserts that the harsh regime at the Clergy Daughters' School, to which four of the daughters were sent, caused the death of two of them from consumption, whereas Charlotte more realistically believed that it merely hastened their deaths. A small but significant innacuracy.

The series appears to be intent on rehabilitating their "much maligned" father, Reverend Patrick Bronte, and ceratinly does a good job of it. It also succeeds in presenting the sisters, and their brother Branwell, as possessed of lively imaginations while being from a young age beset by tragedy, grief and disappointment.

These look like people who really could write, which authors in dramas very often do not.

Picture Thebes around 1100BC. The poor live in abject poverty; the well-to-do can, as usual, always use more.

Not far away, over the river, in the Valley of the Kings, are tombs housing not only the mortal remains of Egypt's Pharaohs, but also the fabulous wealth that the royal dead need to see them comfortably through their journey to the afterlife.

Robbing the tombs of the dead is sacrilege, but after 500 years or so, a tomb can become just a familiar part of the landscape, devoid of religious sentiment. And with most of those in and around the Valley of the Kings engaged on building the future tomb for the present Pharaoh, tombs in general hold little mystique for these artisans and labourers.

Tomb Robbers, this week's episode of the remarkable docudrama Ancient Egyptians (ABC 7.30pm Sundays), tells the true story of an extraordinary trial in October 1111BC, a trial which, despite attempts by local officials to keep a lid on it, revealed that all manner of people officials, artisans, scribes, police were involved in organised tomb-robbing. It was big business in Thebes.

Three thousand years later, the records of the trial still survive. A stash of ancient papyrus documents, they were discovered around 1850 by Egyptian treasure hunters near Luxor.

To maximise their value, the looters divided up the various texts among themselves, cutting one in half. After being sold to various collectors, four of the papyrii eventually ended up in the British Museum in London.

One half of the torn document landed in the Pierpoint Morgan Library in New York. Not until 1935 was the other half of this document discovered in the back of a small wooden statue bought by King Leopold II.

Together, the papyrii reveal a fascinating true story a brutal tale of power and poverty, greed and corruption, torture and revenge.

The new four-part series adapted from Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mysteries is bluntly and somewhat ungraciously titled Marple (ABC 8.30pm Sundays). Geraldine McEwan stars as Jane Marple, the sweet old lady with a razor sharp intuition for solving crimes.

The "golden age" of the puzzle-story detective fiction, the classic "who-dunnit" (and how did he or she do it), was from just before WW1 to WW2. After the War came the dominance of the American "hard-boiled" style with its emphasis on suspense and violence.

Agatha Christie's writing career began in 1920 and spanned 56 years, but she remained a practitioner of the "golden age" puzzle story, specialising in murder by the least likely suspect. She became famous for "her matchless ingenuity in contriving plots, sustaining suspense and misdirecting the reader" (The Concise Oxford Companion to English Literature).

Not surprisingly then, The Body In The Library, the first episode of the new series, although set in the '50s has the feel and to some extent the look of a program set in the '30s.

The series is marked by high production values (and a decent budget) and a remarkable cast list for all the guest parts. This first episode features Joanna Lumley from Ab Fab in a straight role and doing very nicley, Simon Callow as a stuffy Chief Constable, Jack Davenport, David Walliams, Tara Fitzgerald, Ian Richardson and Australian actor Adam Garcia whose accent seems decidedly out of place in the mouth of a British copper.

The USA is awash with pornography, strip joints, topless bars, lap-dancing bars; prostitution is big-business; violence is not only considered acceptable entertainment for children, there are innumerable video games that simulate combat with guns, that teach children how to stand, aim and fire to kill.

At the same time, the right-wing political establishment is on a crusade to get rid of racy language from the airwaves and images of female breasts from television. This even extends to accidental exposure like Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction" during the 2004 Super Bowl half-time show when her right breast and nipple were exposed for a split-second.

Millions of American television viewers claimed to be outraged at this "indecent" event. CBS, which carried the Super Bowl, was slapped with a $500,000 fine for showing Janet Jackson's nipple.

It sounds ridiculous, but it is in fact part of a campaign by the religious Right to impose their authority on the mass of Americans, to not only claim the "moral high ground" but to occupy it and keep it.

The social agenda of George Bush and the Republican Right is to make the USA into the kind of country they think it was in the 1950s. But it wasn't then and they won't succeed now.

What they are doing to the country in the meantime is on view in Outlawing Indecency (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday).

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