Review

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The Independent Culture
A BBC rumour has it that Decisive Weapons (BBC2) was actually the result of an offhand remark, made during a discussion about Decisive Moments, a forthcoming series about photography. As the story goes, Mr Co-production's eyes lit up like a fruit machine when the phrase was uttered and the whole thing was a done deal in a matter of minutes. This sounds a bit like a television producer's fantasy to me, the grim battle for go-ahead, with its fearsome attrition of ideas, converted into a miraculous surrender. But whatever the origin of the series, it has proved very watchable. One wouldn't want to get too grandiose about such a modestly instructive set of programmes but, at their best, they touch on positively mythic themes - of arms and the man, and more intriguingly, the question of where one stops and the other begins.

"The Longbow: Wood against Steel", wasn't actually the programme at its best - being too dependent on various film versions of the Battle of Agincourt and a little indecisive about which particular expert it wanted to guide you around the dull expanse of farmland where the battle took place. They had no less than three different historians standing out in the pasture trying to be evocative, a sequence faintly reminiscent of the Monty Python sketch in which two peripatetic presenters in a Scottish glen end up wrestling for possession of a single microphone (one is doing a programme on the battle of Bannockburn; the other is trying to make a film about forestry).

It was also something of a pity, having heard about the awesome penetrating power of the medieval longbow, that you weren't really shown it doing its stuff - some kind of cider-commercial sequence in which an arrow shears through four inches of solid oak before spearing a leg of lamb. This made me a little suspicious about the current abilities of the experts. When he was explaining that some bows required 180lbs of draw weight, Robert Hardy added with sniffy brio: "which a lot of people say can't be drawn. But. They. Can!" He didn't prove it, though. It was disappointing, too, that, although you were told how a yew bow exploits the different properties of sapwood and heartwood to deadly effect, you didn't learn much about the economics of the weapon. Were the yeoman who were forced to practise their skills every Sunday also obliged to supply the basic equipment?

But none of these minor grumbles could suppress the historical frisson of the weapon, its peculiar status as a patriotic emblem. It has even shaped our national gesture of contempt. The bowman's insult of two string fingers waved at the enemy (fingers the French would sever if they got the chance) survives as the V-sign, most appropriately deployed in the Sun front page "Up Yours Delors", where ancient enmities were accompanied by an ancient salute. Even the yobbish confrontation of that headline had its historic roots - this was the battle, Robert Hardy reminded you, where the notion of honourable combat between social equals received its first grievous wound: "the French knights did not approve of being shot at by people they regarded as peasants." It was fascinating to learn, in that respect, that one solitary Englishman died of a gunshot wound at Agincourt, the unwilling pioneer of a new and even more democratic form of slaughter.

Beneath the superficial similarities of every house move, Moving People (C4) continues to find little shards of social gold. Last night's programme included a convivial sodality of boys, quite intoxicated with a gleeful sense of their own hilarity. In one scene, they demonstrated the cramped dimensions of a new bedroom by trying to swing an inflatable chimp - an experiment which reduced them both to helpless laughter and, I confess, began to do the same to me. I also enjoyed the Ayckbourn touch in the film about a couple forced to move by a compulsory purchase order. The house is full of memories of the grandchildren, explained the wife. "We used to give them picnic tea on the mezzanine," she said grandly, pointing to a half-landing that wasn't big enough to swing a plastic monkey.

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