TELEVISION / Heat and guff

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The Independent Culture
BEFORE the German tourists there were the Mongol hordes. Robert Marshall's four-part Storm from the East (BBC 2) kicked up a blinding cloud of dust and hyperbole: 'Europe awoke to a terrible army that appeared out of the Eastern mists. Very little was known about it. What was known was terrifying. It had already annihilated everything and everyone who dared stand in its path.' The heart sank. Was this the new face of ratings-orientated BBC documentary - history given the hard sell, with promises of sieges, battles and massacres waiting in the wings?

Yes and no. If the emphasis on power, plunder and pillage protested too much, the tone was standard-issue academic and the visual grammar traditional show 'n' tell. Should the narration mention that Mongol myth insisted the nomadic race was descended from a wolf and a deer, you could be sure that a shot of a wolf and a deer was due. Genghis Khan? Cue a portrait of a rather genial-looking gent with a grey moustache. Invading armies? Thousands of extras had slipped into furs, leapt on to horseback and glued kettles to their heads to play the conquerers of yore, sweeping implacably through Asia, China, Afghanistan, Russia - well, everyone should have a hobby.

The research, like the pictures, offered both limited vistas and instant accessibility. The programme's best and simplest stretch came near the start, when it explained how rugged geography, harsh environment, abundant horse flesh and wanderlust conspired to fashion the most ergonomic, ruthless (and brainless) of mounted cavalry: 'What the Mongols didn't understand, they despised. And what they despised, they destroyed.'

If the point was that you could lead a horde to culture but you couldn't make it think, this didn't account for the 'devil riders' sending forth envoys and forging strategic pacts with other empires. Or dear old Genghis's description of himself as 'the punishment of God'; details that certainly suggest that Mr Khan saw his terror as purposeful, rather than the expression of an omnivorous appetite driven by - a drum roll, please - revenge.

Indeed, as with so many fact- packed documentaries devoted to civilisations and centuries long passed, Storm from the East shied away from contradiction and denied itself the imaginative leap that might allow entry into the mind of its subject - a leap that has little to do with explanation and everything to do with understanding.

Far Flung Floyd (BBC 2) attempted to understand alien culture by travelling to West Malaysia and cooking the local delicacies. A vain effort. As mein host pointed out, 'I'm not an anthropologist' - a truth the show's non-stop joky shallowness bore ample witness to. Which raised an obvious question: why had Floyd flung himself so far when the recipes could have been just as easily executed in the studio?

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