Television Review: Into Africa with Henry Louis Gates

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IT'S ALWAYS healthy for traditional orthodoxies to have to fight for their place in the sun. So you can't overestimate the usefulness of a series like Into Africa with Henry Louis Gates (Sat BBC2), which sets up against Eurocentric versions of history an African alternative, in which the "Dark Continent" is a place of sophisticated, ancient civilisations, monumental buildings and huge wealth.

So this week, Gates headed off down the Nile in search of traces of ancient Nubia. He discovered that black Nubian kings were at one point rulers of the whole of Egypt, vast, elaborate tombs and that a Nubian city, Kerma, is the oldest city in the continent - at 4,000 years old it predates Stonehenge, Gates said. (In this, he was not entirely accurate: the earliest parts of Stonehenge, according to my textbooks, date back to around 2,000BC.)

The three programmes we've had so far have contained enough fascinating information to fundamentally alter the picture of the past that most of us were given at school. But, to be honest, it's diluted with an awful lot of wishy-washy travelogue - half the time Gates is the serious African-American scholar on a pilgrimage to his spiritual homeland; but the other half, he is busy playing the jolly Yankee abroad, marvell- ing at the quaintness of the customs and the inadequacy of the air-conditioning, proudly displaying his supply of French wine and Imodium. You need more charisma and wit than he's displayed so far to get away with that. More seriously, he lets too much assertion and exaggeration go untested - he didn't exactly endorse the idea that the ancient Egyptians were black Africans, but it would have been easy to go away with the impression that that was what he believed.

Still, in one sense, as the black American journalist Lerone Bennett wrote, there is no real debate here: an ancient Egyptian would have been forced to sit at the back of the bus in Mississippi in the Forties. By and large, Into Africa enlarges our view of history.

This is more than I can say for Far Out (Sun C4), a series that sets out to recast British history in the 20th century in New Age form. Most of the time, the programme's uncritical endorsement of loopy claims is simply irritating - as this week, when we were told that "As the men went off to war in 1939, some of the women they left behind began to discover they had special powers of premonition..."

When the story moved on to the so-called "Magical Battle of Britain", it overstepped the mark. One woman remembered trying to combat Nazism's psychic assault by projecting loving thoughts, while a witch talked of dancing round bonfires (smouldering, so as to abide by black-out regulations), chanting "Can't cross the sea, can't cross the sea". And hey, the Germans didn't invade: coincidence - or something far stranger? Illustrating this deluded, self- aggrandising nonsense with footage of the real Battle of Britain, the one in which people were killed and maimed, lifted it beyond mere stupidity into downright tastelessness. This is the kind of idiocy that gives orthodoxy a good name; and Channel 4 should be ashamed to be broadcasting it.