If it wasn't Zoo (BBC1) or Vets in Practice (BBC2), it was Animal ER (C5). When the novels of James Herriott encouraged actors to stick their arms up the rear end of a cow, they inspired something of a television frisson. Suburban viewers winced. But the genre that sprang from those early vets' lives is both twee and macabre, a vision of death and decay presented in a style syrupy enough to suit children of all ages. Along with the fascination for human hospitals, it has exposed a slightly decadent modern taste - recreational surgery.
There were seven hours of wildlife programming on prime-time television last week. They are popular and even educational, but above all they're cheap. They do very well at international sales shows; all you have to do is get an actor to redo the voice-over ("It's winter, and the caribou are moving south ...") and a single film can work in 50 languages. They represent a kind of visual esperanto. And cheetahs and elephants do not insist on awkward negotiations over foreign rights.
There have been some scandals - why spend three weeks trying to photograph a wild leopard, when you can shove a tame one up a tree and film it in a single afternoon? - but on the whole these programmes seem as inoffensive as can be. Yet they do have a reactionary streak, especially in the casual way they slip human allusions into the mating dances of wild creatures. If a propagandist wished to confirm us in the prejudice that males are born to hunt (and fight and laze around under trees) while females must breed and suckle, he would make wildlife films. The implication "this is nature, after all" is that there are home truths here we'd be well- advised to absorb.
Animal films are relentlessly euphemistic. They enact the "human" dramas of sex, death and survival in a way that would be thought tasteless - or pornographic - if the subjects were people. In the process, they stealthily encourage us to identify with the timeless laws of nature. Last week, in Zoo, the keepers watched nervously as a lioness introduced her cubs to their dad. Lions are not feminists, and this encounter resembled a Victorian nanny presenting two-year-olds to the patriarch in the study. How would they get on? Would they bond? Dad looked imperturbable - none of this New Lion nonsense for him. But what can you do? It's the way of the world, isn't it?
The awful perils of seeking contemporary lessons in nature or myth were refreshingly punctured by Michael Wood in Kevin Sim's astute film (Secret History Special, C4) about Hitler's intellectual elite. The SS, Wood suggested, have been badly misrepresented in endless war movies as being only malign thugs. In fact, it was something even more alarming, an ivory tower. Tracing the folkloric origins of Nazi ideology, he led us to Himmler's Ananerbe - ancestral-heritage society - at an imposing castle in Bavaria. It was a Camelot for the Nazi elite corps, the SS ("Never forget we are a knightly order," Himmler said), and of its 46 department heads it counted 19 professors and 19 men with doctorates. The cream of Germany's vibrant academic life came together to establish the archaeological and anthropological grounds for Nordic supremacy. They hunted all sorts of albatrosses "from Atlantis to the Grail", driven by Himmler's Wagnerian belief in the idealised Germanic hero.
Pacing about in the frost, a big coat hunched around him against the cold, Wood told the story calmly, as if chastened by it. He had plenty of reasons to look uneasy. His own field, archaeology, was in the dock. The Ananerbe was not full of cranks. These were serious scientists, and it was sobering to see how their ideas could float towards fantasy and then bloodshed. They chased demigods and created only demagogues.
In a sorrowful coda, Wood explained that most of the academics went on to head archaeology departments in Germany's post-war universities. Few photographs of them survive in their SS uniforms. In an act which certainly contravenes the spirit of archaeology, they destroyed the evidence that would have given historians a clear look at who they were and what they did.
In one scene, a pre-war anthropologist went to Tibet to measure Asiatic skulls. The Himalayan villagers giggled as he took facial masks for his collection of human types. A few years later, the same man went to Auschwitz to pick up Jewish specimens for his museum in Strasbourg. In an icy memorandum, the correct procedure for the preservation of the skeleton after "subsequently induced death" was outlined in detail.
It was enough to make us think twice about today's seemingly harmless intellectual fads. If the Ananerbe were flourishing now, it would busy itself showing the links between pure Aryan blood, UFOs and ancient pagan rites. As if to dramatise the ethnic poison lurking in folklore, the film kept returning to a Bavarian dancing troupe, and the blonde dancers grew more symbolic and sinister every time they appeared.
The consequences of this dire intellectual quest are well enough known. But Secret History (C4) uncovered a surprising story by interviewing the handful of Jews who survived the war by hiding out in the lair of the beast itself: Berlin. The stories were harrowing, of course. We watched elderly Germans recalling the way they sneaked from house to house, hiding in cupboards. But the narration couldn't find the right gear - it told the story with silly urgency, as if it were an expose. The frosty melancholy which Wood brought to his subject was, by contrast, a model of restraint.
Both films raised the spectre of what can happen in conditions of overwhelming censorship and propaganda. If only the TV cameras had been there, we kept thinking, surely all this could never have happened. Indeed, in the BBC's self-congratulatory licence-fee teaser being screened at the moment, lots of senior correspondents queue up to bang the drum of free expression. The case seems undeniable, though one contribution has awkward implications. The Northern Ireland reporter recalls how the people of Omagh thanked him for carrying their story to the world.
Watching Liam Neeson tell two sad stories in Omagh: The Legacy (BBC2), it was tempting to think the opposite. The film ran its fingers down the lineaments of grief following last year's car-bomb in Omagh's high street. The television cameras didn't prevent this; on the contrary, the world's news media played a part in causing it. The bomb was above all a publicity statement designed to spray shrapnel across the world's media.
As viewers, we had our cake and ate it too. We could shudder at the blast and then weep with the victims, all from our living rooms. In today's media world, these are, in effect, the acceptable casualties, the price we pay for having nosy journalism. Does anyone seriously think that those visionary freedom fighters who melted a teenager's eyes and smashed a nine-year-old's shoulder - watched the film, blinked back the tears, and vowed never to do it again?
It's not a simple matter, but when we talk about the prevention of terrorism we might one day have to talk also about the prevention of television. Without it there might not have been a bomb in the first place.
Brian Viner is awayReuse content