The Guardian 3 August, 2005

TV programs worth watching
Sun August 7 — Sat August 13

Frank Hurley: The Man Who Made History (ABC 7.30pm Sunday) is a very curious work. A documentary about one of this country’s most famous photographers, its commentary drips with venom.

Frank Hurley was a working class lad who left school at 14 and became a professional photographer. He talked his way into Mawson’s 1911 Antarctic expedition and inmmortalised it on film.

Two years later he was off to the Antarctic again with Shackleton, and when their ship became trapped — and then crushed — in the ice, Hurley made a remarkable and beautiful photographic record of their dramatic escape and rescue.

Returning from the South, he became a War photographer on the Western Front and in Palestine. Later he went on expeditions to New Guinea and became a cameraman on Cinesound feature fims in 1930s.

This documentary, however, takes the view that Hurley was a fraud and a poseur. Presumably reflecting the attitude of the film’s director/writer Simon Nasht, the commentator manages to put a sneer into the most innocuous comment on Hurley’s career.

It is a determined hatchet-job on Hurley, which many of the interviews in it do not support. Even those that are critical, are free of the hostility that permeates the commentary.

Nasht’s chief beef seems to be that Hurley touched up his photos in Antarctica, adding in cloud effects or breaking waves to enhance the drama of the shot. Such practices were standard practice among photographers of the time, and indeed still are today.

He castigates Hurley for staging WW1 battle scenes long after the actual battle. But this too was standard practice: there is virtually no actual footage of Allied troops going into action in WW1 — it all had to be staged afterwards.

In WW2, Australian documentary filmmaker Damien Parer won an Oscar for his short film Kokoda Front Line, but all the attacks by bayonet-weilding Aussies on Jap positions were staged long after the fighting was over.

Even Hurley’s cinematography of Ken G Hall’s middle-class dramas for Cinesound in the ’30s is sneered at, with Hurley — who simply photographed the films — held up to ridicule for their over-the-top patriotism and mushy plots (surely the responsibility of the scriptwriters, directors and Hall himself?).

As far as I am concerned, the only thing worth watching in Girl of the Bush, for example, is Hurley’s splendid photography of herds of sheep flowing down into gullies and up the other side. I thought Frank Hurley: The Man Who Made History was unfair and misleading.

The two-part series The Pacific War In Colour (SBS 7.30pm Tuesdays) uses home movies, extracts from Hollywood-made documentaries and, most graphic of all, colour footage from the gun-cameras of US Navy and Marine flyers.

Some of this colour footage comprises images of horror and heroism — the Coral Sea in flames and Guadalcanal littered with bodies, as well as kamikazes in suicide attacks on American aircraft carriers. This footage is horrific enough in black and white; colour should add a remarkable extra dimension of reality.

The Pacific War In Colour includes "never-before-seen" footage of the battles of Midway, Saipan and Okinawa, along with images of the ultra-secret A-bomb tests in the American desert.

Like all modern US documentaries on WW2, the spin in the commentary is something of a drawback.

Tom Zubrycki is a committed Australian filmmaker whose documentaries are always worth watching. His latest, Molly and Mobarak (SBS 10.00pm Wednesday), is about Afghan refugees living in the NSW town of Young.

"This is a timely and revealing documentary which clearly illustrates the human cost of the government’s unjust and hostile policies on asylum seekers", says Zubrycki. "Mobarak’s loss of country and family have left him feeling isolated, lonely and fearful. These feelings are compounded by the uncertainty of the Temporary Visa process and the racism in the town."

Commenting on the initial hostility and suspicion towards the Afghan refugees, Zubrycki says that those feelings have largely given way to respect and genuine affection for the newcomers. "Small towns would like to keep their temporary refugees", he says. "Coalition MPs and local government bodies have made strong representations to the Federal Government, but there is absolutely no sign of the government changing its mind and allowing them to stay."

In episode two of the excellent 16-part series British Isles: A Natural History (ABC 6.00pm Saturdays), gardening guru Alan Titchmarsh points out the way Britain’s evolution is revealed in its rocks, and how important also was the role of water.

He "road tests" a variety of Scotch whiskies, noting that it is the water they’re made with that gives each whisky its characteristic colour, flavour and even its aroma. Whisky made with water that has been filtered through sandstone is noticeably different from that made with water that has come through granite, for example.

He reminds us that once the whole of Britain lay covered by ice. But about 15,000 years ago temperatures rose very quickly — Titchmarsh says the temperature went from Arctic to temperate in the space of about 50 years — and the ice sheet turned to slush.

With the melting of the world’s ice sheet, sea levels rose by 100 metres, separating Britain from mainland Europe and creating the 6259 islands that make up the British Isles today.

At low tide, fossilised remnants can still be seen of the forests that once stood where the Irish Sea, the North Sea and the English Channel are now.

The Daleks return in a big way for the final episode of this series of Doctor Who (ABC 7.30pm Saturdays). According to press reports, ratings for this new series have slipped, but that was only to be expected.

Many of the viewers for the series would have been hoping for a nostalgic return (but with new scripts) to the Dr Who of their youth. What they got was a sometimes quirky but altogether darker series aimed at a much older audience than the original.

The finale of this present series demonstrates once again the state-of-the-art computer graphics that have been a feature of the new series. It also demonstrates the fine line in metaphysical mumbo-jumbo that has been a less welcome feature of some episodes and which probably accounts for the drop in ratings.

Christopher Eccleston, who plays the Doctor, leaves the series in this episode (he only signed on for one series), which is a bit rough on poor Rose (Billie Piper) although she does get to display some powerful fireworks of her own.

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