Television Review

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The Independent Culture
FORENSIC SCIENTISTS, delving into corpses in the search for truth and justice, have been a staple of popular television for a long time - remember Jack Klugman in Quincy or the late Marius Goring in The Expert? - and lately they have experienced a surge of popularity, what with Silent Witness and McCallum. You could speculate on all kinds of reasons for that. One may be the old-fashioned, unscientific thrill of watching somebody communing with the dead, reading the entrails (autopsies on television tend to be conducted in sombrely lit rooms more like churches than operating theatres). Or it could be to do with our modern faith in science and its ability to deliver up impartial truth.

Meet the Ancestors (BBC2) has a go at tapping into both these currents of feeling, with variable success. The idea behind the series is to use the latest forensic techniques to extract information from the bones of our forebears. Last night's programme had Julian Richards investigating four skeletons found in a Stone Age site at Cranborne in Dorset. An initial visit by a bone specialist established that one of the corpses was a slim-built woman aged around 30, and the other three were children of indeterminate sex, aged around 10, nine and five; all of them were suffering from iron-deficiency anaemia. Carbon- dating showed that they had probably lived between 3400 and 3300 BC. Analysis of nitrogen isotopes suggested that they had eaten a diet rich in animal protein, either meat or dairy products. DNA testing showed that the middle child was a boy, the other two girls, while analysis of strontium in their teeth, when compared with strontium signatures from around the country, mapped out their travels.

The story, in brief, was that the woman had been born in the Mendips, had travelled south to Dorset to collect the two older children, who weren't hers, before returning to the Mendips, where she had given birth to the younger child. Then all four had returned to Dorset to die, by means unknown.

That this much can be known from bones 5,500 years old is astounding, and the series' achievement is to cajole the viewer into joining in the archaeologists' intermittent chorus of schoolboy exclamation - "Gosh!" and "Cripes!" What takes the shine off it for me is the way in which Richards (abetted by Elizabeth Parker's mock-primitive music) tries to whip up an air of mystery and pathos that sits uncomfortably with his near-permanent grin.

After this, there was more forensic science in Dispatches (C4), which followed a team of Finnish scientists to Kosovo last November. Their mission was to investigate the sites of two massacres in the hope of establishing who was responsible: the first was at Gornje Obrinje, where 22 Albanians had been killed - including several children - the second was not far away at Klecka, where Serbian civilians had been lined up and executed. Unsurprisingly, the local Serb authorities, in the person of investigating judge Danica Marinkovic, had lots of advice to give and conclusions to offer regarding the Klecka massacre. Charred bones and a couple of alleged Albanian terrorists were brought out for the benefit of the cameras. Meanwhile, most of the Finnish team was being kept out of the country.

When they finally did arrive, their mission to exhume corpses at Gornje Obrinje, deep in KLA-held territory, was ambushed by Ms Marinkovic and a convoy of heavily-armed Serb grunts - forensic experts, she claimed, whose presence at the exhumation was essential. To avoid a bloodbath, the mission was aborted.

In many ways, Heenan Bhatti's documentary was wearily familiar, with its shots of an emotionless Albanian showing off the unmarked graves of his entire family - his three-month-old daughter had survived the massacre only to die on the way to hospital: "There is nothing more I can say about her." And its distaste for the Serbs was at times too evident: it was absurd to talk about the Serbs "manipulating" the Finnish mission when all their blustering and obstruction had been caught on camera.

The programme found itself with an inadvertently urgent conclusion: Judge Marinkovic was in the news again this week, supervising the removal of bodies after the killings at Racak, and again the Finns have been fighting for access. You imagine the Dispatches team would have settled for being a little less topical.