TV Reviews: Ivanhoe and Children of the Revolution

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The Independent Culture
Surely the nine o' clock watershed should cut both ways? I have no difficulty, naturally, with the idea of a pale beyond which more indigestible material must not stray. But, in return for the pureed inoffensiveness of pre-watershed broadcasting, surely grown-ups are due a certain amount of protection, too, an expectation of adult company once the children have gone to bed? The thought is prompted by the first episode of Ivanhoe (Sun BBC1), broadcast, quite mystifyingly, at 9.20pm. It's true that you would have some complaints if you put it out at tea-time, given the strong salting of animal mutilation, torture, murder and anti-Semitism contained in the first episode (not to mention table-manners which you wouldn't want imitated with a chicken nugget). But is Ivanhoe really improved by such dour grittiness?

If you wanted anything like a realistic view of medieval England, you would do better to start from scratch rather than attempt to rescue Scott's welter of historical inaccuracies from its playroom associations. It may be that I simply have distorted expectations: one of my few childhood memories of television (having mostly grown up beyond the reach of transmitters) is of dangling from a door handle in a state of near-delirium at the prospect of Roger Moore in armour. So it was some- thing of a shock to find the story presented as serious fare for people who long ago lost their first set of teeth.

Nothing in this first episode convinced me that I had underestimated a neglected classic. The plot - wicked Normans, staunch Anglo-Saxons, loyalty, love and valour - is pure story-book stuff, and the cut-out characters are already beginning to crumple under the weight of the serial's rather murky vision (it does look good, in a theme-weekend kind of way). Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert (try saying that after a few tankards of mead) makes a thoroughly villainous villain, and Ivanhoe an impeccably decent hero, but I'm afraid to say that the challenge of caring about what happens to them proved quite beyond me.

I also wondered whether it is even remotely possible to do a straight- faced version of this story at a time when male facial hair is so out of fashion, or at least when beards as wild and woolly as those sported here are almost the sole preserve of fruitarians and morris-dancing enthusiasts. It doesn't help that there is something risibly New Age about the Anglo- Saxons, which only compounds the sense that you have stumbled on a commune of suburban druids or Arthurian wannabes: "Maintain her with the strength of the oak, defend her with the strength of the thorn," says Cedric, as he betroths the unwilling Rowena to the unpalatable Athelstane, and you half expect to spot a man with a camcorder in the background, recording the ceremony for his friends in the Wanstead Pagan Association.

The repeat of David Hinton's moving and thoughtful documentary TX: Children of the Revolution (Sat BBC2) provided a poignant counterpoint to the second of Nicolas Kent's Naked Classics series (Sun C4). In Communist China, precocious musical talent was a mixed blessing, exposing you with particular salience to the biting wind of self-criticism. Many of the musicians here had seen their individual hopes sacrificed (often with their fervent complicity) in the name of class struggle. They now suffer the double burdens of disappointed ambition and guilt at their participation in the cruelties of the cultural revolution.

In modern New York, talent can be equally hazardous, even if it is richly rewarded in conventional terms. "You can't tamp out true talent," said one top agent (essentially a broker in genius futures, buying very early in the hope of a good profit at maturity). "So it will be a little distorted. So what?" This sounded unappetisingly self-serving, but it has to be said that the prodigies on show seemed admirably contented, even if the curiosity that feeds their careers is an impure one. And while it's true that there are tragic failures, it's worth remembering that ordinary children can be miserable too. You suspected that some of the casualties cited here would still have been unhappy if they had not pursued their talent so fiercely - just unhappy in a different way.

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