The Guardian 30 March, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun April 3 — Sat April 9


It may be just coincidence, but every movie worth its salt these days seems to have an accompanying “documentary” about its making. This usually takes the form of publicity interviews with the cast, the director and sometimes the writer.

Although often made by TV networks rather than the producers of the movie, these “documentaries” are timed to appear on local TV channels just prior to the movie’s release. If that does not happen then at least the documentary can be included on the DVD.

Sydney Pollack’s latest film is the thriller The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman. Not surprisingly, a French TV “documentary” Something About Sydney Pollack (ABC 2.50pm Sunday) pops up on TV in anticipation of its release.

It is not a documentary at all, really, but an extended interview with Pollack and his close friend Robert Redford, who starred in several of Pollack’s films. It takes the form of a career overview of Pollack’s work, dealing with each film in chronological order.

It is actually of some interest, because Pollack is an interesting director, more concerned with what the film is about than is usual with Hollywood directors. As he makes clear, he is more like a European director than an American one.

He began as an actor, but early in his career, on the advice of Burt Lancaster, he shifted over to directing. His first feature film was The Slender Thread with Sidney Poitier and Anne Bancroft.

Since then he has made some outstanding films in a variety of genres, including They Shoot Horses, Don’t They (1969), The Way We Were (1973), Tootsie (1983) and Out of Africa (1986).

Unfortunately for a film about movies, Something About Sydney Pollack contains no movie clips, just posters and stills.

This week on Battlefield Detectives (ABC Sundays 7.30pm) the subject is “What Sank The Armada?” The episode is more enlightening than last week’s on Waterloo and comes up with a plausible explanation.

As the various academics who are featured make clear, it was already known that the Armada was not sunk by Drake’s fireships or the accuracy of his heavy, long-range cannons.

The latter did considerable damage to the Spanish ships but did not sink them. That was accomplished by a combination of the weather and the presence of a current that the Spanish would not have known extended to north of Ireland — the Gulf Stream.

While the ships of the Armada were determinedly sailing westward to make sure they were well clear of the coast of Scotland and especially Ireland, the current was carrying them back the other way.

Unable to determine longitude (that ability would be another 300 years or so in coming), the Spanish captains had to rely on dead reckoning and guesswork. When they turned south in the belief that they were well past Ireland, they were in fact heading straight for her treacherous, rocky coast.

As usual with this series, there is great show of “scientific” testing of period weapons. In this episode, a heavy long-range English ship’s cannon is fired with spectacular lack of success by the Royal Engineers who seem unable to hit a barn door at 50 metres.

There is also a very uninformative display of computer modeling of the two widely differing designs of the English and Spanish ships of the time. This fails to explain in any way what the advantages were of the English design or why the Spanish ships were more cumbersome and less manoeuverable.

Computer graphics could have illustrated with clarity the difficulties of manoeuvering for a sea battle in sailing ships, and why the English were able to out sail the Spanish. That they have not been used in this way is a pity.

If 16th century naval battles are not your cup of tea, you could try the first episode of the three-part series The Normans: A Dynasty That Shaped The World, in the Lost Worlds timeslot (SBS 7.30pm Sundays).

The Normans were not French, but sea-going raiders from Scandinavia who over two centuries invaded and conquered north-western France and later England. But they also extended their conquests and settlements into Scotland, Wales, Italy and even Northern Africa.

This series interviews and consults with celebrated professors and historians from Britain, France and Italy.

The first episode deals with the invasion first of Normandy then of England in 1066. Amongst other things it highlights current historical belief that, contrary to the account depicted in the Bayeux tapestry, King Harold of England was not slain by an arrow in the eye at the Battle of Hastings but by being disemboweled by a Norman (which is also depicted in the Bayeux tapestry).

If the saga of how Rugby School in the 19th century was turned from a lawless haunt of bullies and worse into one of the first of England’s “Great Public Schools” (which were all private, of course) where the sons of the gentry could get a decent education befitting future members of the ruling class, then the new adaptation of Thomas Hughes’ novel Tom Brown’s Schooldays (ABC 8.30pm Sundays) is clearly for you.

Comedian Stephen Fry plays the headmaster Dr Arnold who brought about the changes and Jemma Redgrave is his loyal wife, Mary. Alex Pettyfer plays Tom while the loathsome Flashman is played by Joseph Beattie.

When the pictures of grin­ning US Army personnel degrading Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison first broke as a news story, bemused soldiers told the media that “the Army likes what we do, it gets prisoners to talk”.

Only when world public opinion expressed its revulsion at this evidence of US torture did the Pentagon look for a scapegoat. They have found it in Lynndie England, the US army reservist who appeared in many of the photos.

She is currently awaiting court martial in Fort Worth, Texas. The US Army is apparently trying to claim that “late at night”, she and other soldiers systematically degraded and abused Iraqi prisoners as some sort of personal kinkiness.

In Big Storm: The Lynndie England Story, in the Cutting Edge timeslot (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday), England repeats that her behaviour was a tactic sanctioned by military intelligence personnel, that was designed to intimidate prisoners.

The program, and England herself, suggest that the abuse was ordered from above. Both President Bush and his Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, hold that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to their wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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