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The Independent Culture
In a taste of what we can expect as the century reaches its conclusion, the BBC wheeled out what will doubtless be the first of many a millennium television history. People's Century (BBC1) is certainly getting in early. It claims to be a comprehensive history of 1900 to 1999, which suggests one of two things: either this is going to be a very long series, or they've got Mystic Meg on the production team.

Despite the grand ambition, on the evidence of the first episode, People's Century will have sent many a quiver of panic through those presently researching other millennium television projects. Like most good ideas, its premise is simple: let the people tell the story. Conduct, in short, the century's biggest vox pop around the question: the 20th century, how was it for you?

It helps, of course, that this is the first filmed century. An astonishing number of sources were tapped: two of the most memorable clips being a colour film of a French beach in 1912, so stunning you assumed it must have been a fake, and the sequence of a suffragette running out in front of the King's horse at the Derby and coincidentally inventing the century's principal form of protest - do it at any event where the cameras will be.

But it helps People's Century still further that this is the first century in which, as it approaches its end, there are still people around who were there at its start.

In 1900, the average life expectancy among the French working class was 47; in this first episode they had at least a dozen talking heads who were over 100. It is a fact of ageing that the memories of youth burn brighter as it becomes more distant. By marrying memories as bright as these to archive footage as cleverly researched as this, the producers arrived at a winning combination: film of Bleriot setting off across the Channel, narrated by a French woman who was there; the 113-year-old Russian revolutionary recalling manning the barricades in 1905; the British woman who once spotted Queen Victoria going past in her landau (doubtless People's Century II: 2000-2099 will open with an eye-witness account of Prince William turning up to open a new branch of McDonald's in Milton Keynes).

The most compelling moment of the first episode, though, was a woman recounting how she was plucked from the Titanic: "I remember the shrieks of the drowning," she said. "But worse was the silence that followed."

The Titanic, another voice-over told us, was regarded at the time as a technological symbol of British greatness, a rallying point for national pride. As it turned out, it was a singularly apt metaphor for Britain in the people's century: sinking fast.

The other commonplace of late 20th-century British television appears to be the medical drama. As Casualty cranks up again, as Medics gets another shift, over on BBC2 Stephen Davis's Degrees of Error begins. In it, a gorgeous female doctor, spurned by an incompetent and sexist medical hierarchy, starts work on confidential drugs research. Meanwhile, back home, her mum is dabbling with prescription drugs, like a refugee from Woodstock.

Meanwhile also, our heroine meets an investigative reporter who spends his waking hours trawling the Internet. You don't need a particularly sensitive plot thermometer to work out that, in the next three episodes, these three storylines will mesh. Yes, we are talking big-time medical conspiracy territory and an initial diagnosis suggests a bad case of Cardiac Arrest combined with a terminal dose of Edge of Darkness.

"I'm suffering from compassion failure," says our heroine at one point. "We all get a touch of patient fatigue," says her colleague. Me, I've gone down with medical drama exhaustion: I wouldn't mind if the century closed without another sight of an actor in a white coat.

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