Television choices: The Islamic impulse to conquer the ancient world


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The Independent Culture

TV pick of the week

Islam: the Untold Story

Tuesday 9pm Channel 4

It's a brave historian who chisels away at the core certainties of any religion, but perhaps more so with Islam than most. Tom Holland, an expert in ancient empires, set off to discover what had inspired the Bedouin Arabs of the 7th century – nomads on the margins of history until that time – to conquer half the world, from China to the borders of France. He had expected to find the story of Muhammad central to these events, to uncover the Prophet, as he puts it, "in the full light of history". Holland instead found himself "being sucked into a black hole" – an absence of hard historical evidence about events and personalities from 1,400 years ago. Were the Arabs of the 7th century Muslim at all, and what do we actually know about Muhammad?

C4's 30 Greatest Comedy Shows

Saturday 9pm Channel 4

You may not agree with the ranking (and I didn't agree with the number one), but there's no doubting the wealth of comic talent in this countdown clip show, from Ali G, Brass Eye, Peep Show and Spaced to The Comic Strip, Green Wing, Inbetweeners and Father Ted. Channel 4 can rightly be proud of such a pioneering roll-call.

Bad Sugar

Sunday 10pm Channel 4

The lip-smacking trio of Olivia Colman, Julia Davis and Sharon Horgan unite in this pilot written by Peep Show's Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong. It's a spoof soap – a mighty bitch-fest and a sort of British Dallas about a mining dynasty. Horgan's cruise-ship dancer marries into the family, much to Davis's disdain – her wedding gift is a locket full of dead wasps.

Fraud Lord

Monday 10pm & 1.50am More 4

"Lord" Edward Davenport first came to prominence as an organiser of lucrative "wild child balls" in the "yuppie" Eighties. His London mansion has been used to film The King's Speech and fetish movies, but Davenport is currently languishing in Wandsworth Prison. It seems that his aristocratic title wasn't the only dodgy aspect of the man.

London 2012 Paralympic Games Opening Ceremony

Wednesday 8pm Channel 4

The artistic director Stephen Daldry has a hard act to follow in Danny Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony, as his programme Enlightenment celebrates inclusivity with a fly past by "Aerobility" and acrobatic performances on a 35 metre-high rig. The procession of 4,000 athletes is followed by the lighting of the Paralympic Cauldron.

Good Cop

Thursday 9pm BBC1

It's been a while since we've had a good cop show set in Liverpool – one-time home of Z Cars – but Stephen Butchard's new four-parter is a belter. Warren Brown – a prime-time hearthrob in the making – plays Jean-Paul, the good cop of the title driven to bad deeds by a somewhat cartoonishly evil gang led by Stephen Graham.

Parade's End

Friday 9pm BBC2

"You're such a paragon of honourable behaviour, you're the cruellest man I know," exclaims Sylvia (Rebecca Hall) of her upright, uptight husband Christopher (Cumberbatch) as Tom Stoppard's adaptation of Ford Madox Ford's novels deepens and spreads its sympathies wider. A penitent Sylvia tries convent life as the Great War looms.