Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THERE'S A common misapprehension that television can't deal with complex issues, a view that the medium itself is sometimes depressingly keen to confirm. But, as at least three programmes this weekend showed, there are ways of doing the tough stuff.

One approach is simply to forget you're on television altogether, and bash on regardless. This is the one taken by Millennium Minds (Sun C4), possibly the most suicidally untelevisual TV programme since the late, lamented (in our house, anyway) Voices. For those who never watched it - and few seem to have done - Voices was a hyper-intellectual chat show from the early days of Channel 4, which involved Michael Ignatieff and a couple of Nobel laureates sitting at a desk late at night and agreeing to differ on such issues as "Modernity and its Discontents".

Millennium Minds is a game attempt at boiling down the defining ideas of the last 1,000 years into four programmes. Even given 90 minutes at a stretch, this makes for a certain amount of rush and bustle, but I don't think you could accuse the programme of giving way to the soundbite culture. Around a table in a darkened studio sit Alain de Botton (author of How Proust Can Change Your Life) and half a dozen academics, some with strange foreign accents, bickering good-naturedly about the great minds of history - yesterday it was Dante, Thomas Aquinas, Luther, Leonardo da Vinci, Copernicus and, to begin with, Pope Innocent III ("the Romano Prodi of the early 13th century").

There was the odd visual aid - usually a quick snap of a relevant Old Master - and the camera did wander about a bit, but mostly in a way that reflected the flow of the discussion rather than simple restlessness. It's interesting that such a deeply serious enterprise was produced by Jeremy Isaacs: maybe he thinks of it as penance for the headlining, digitally animated nonsense of Millennium. I won't pretend that watching it made me skip across the high hills (and I'm not even going to think about trying to boil down the actual content), but it's nice to know that it's there.

By contrast, Andrew Graham-Dixon's Renaissance (Sun BBC2), the BBC's public service flagship for the autumn, is all visual aids. That's understandable, the consensus being that where visual aids are concerned, Renaissance Italy knew its onions. Even so, it's not an unqualified good: the concentration on the visual sometimes distorts the argument in minor ways - having spent part of the afternoon learning about Innocent III's influence on 13th-century Christianity, I wondered whether Graham-Dixon's emphasis on St Francis's supreme importance had something to do with the fact that Innocent didn't make it into so many paintings.

More frustratingly, the camera here really was very itchy, so that some of the time it felt as if Graham-Dixon was a Japanese tourist, leaping off the bus to take pictures of himself looking solemn in front of the important stuff. At times, the reluctance to linger was revealing - in the baptistery in Florence, the roving camera emphasised the sumptuousness and variety of the cloths depicted on the ceiling. Elsewhere, though, it was distracting, too keen to dive in on details rather than giving you the whole shape of the painting. But I enjoyed the decentralising thrust of the argument: that the Renaissance didn't happen in one place, at one moment in history, but was part of a longer process, one that happened in Flanders and Macedonia as well as Florence.

Both these programmes were worthwhile, but I don't think I'll be haunted by either of them the way I will be by Warriors (Sat and Sun BBC1). Peter Kosminsky's two-part drama about British soldiers in Bosnia, on a "peacekeeping mission", was heroically undramatic, true to the misery and randomness of the situation. There was little in the way of build-up and resolution; instead, the soldiers (and the viewer) had to live with haphazard death and frustrating impotence. When it did offer more conventional satisfaction, it was in devastating form - when Serb guards tried to search a personnel carrier in which British troops were concealing a wounded Muslim boy, the suspense was as close to unbearable as television has ever achieved. The fact that we have seen all this before on the news didn't diminish its power. This is what drama is supposed to do: to tell you what you already knew, but this time, to make you feel it.

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