Review: Sit up, stand up, stand up for a fight

THERE was a touch of the family video to In Search of our Ancestors (BBC2), a whiff of cosiness about the way that Donald Johanson led you through the story of his discovery of the oldest human fossil yet found. So while he was worrying about the origins of the species, examining the parched ground of Ethiopia for traces of our hairy forefathers, I was fretting about the origin of the series. A co-production, surely, Professor? That hint of condescension, those vestigial traces of primary school that are so characteristic of American science documentaries? 'But how could hippos and giraffes live in this harsh desert?' asked Johanson, up to his ankles in dusty gravel - Yes, you at the back there. That's right] It didn't always look like this. Very good, you must have been paying attention for the last 100 years.

Still, the matter of the series is fascinating, even if it is conveyed in a slightly confusing mix of documentary and am-dram reconstructions. While hunting for fossils in 1974 Johanson stumbled over a knee- joint. He was looking for the elusive connection between our nearest known ancestors, the apes, and early humans, and these little pieces of bones didn't fit his preconceptions.

It had been thought that the missing link would be something that walked a bit like an ape but thought a bit like a human - in other words, that expanded brain- size was the trigger for our evolution. The knee-joint belonged to a three-and-a-half- foot-high skeleton which the team named Lucy (represented here by a small actress in very urgent need of a depilatory) and it suggested the exact opposite - that our ancestors had first learnt to walk upright and that increased brain size had followed later. Nature found work for idle hands, which had previously been occupied in getting about but which could now expand their repertoire.

After some three million years of tinkering they had come up with the flame- thrower, a hellish piece of human ingenuity which had seared the memories of those who saw it used during the Second World War on the island of Saipan. In Secret History (C4), which told of how many Japanese troops and civilians committed suicide rather than surrender to American GIs, one veteran recalled the peculiar mewing noise it made, repeating it again and again as though it was a nagging tune he couldn't shake.

The film made much of the Japanese propaganda that persuaded the defenders that it was better to do almost anything rather than surrender, but made slightly less of the American propaganda that allowed ordinary boys not to trouble themselves too much about who was inside the caves they were cauterising. But then the American propaganda (stories of a cruel and tenacious enemy) was a lot closer to the truth. Two Japanese survivors recalled how children had been murdered because their crying might have revealed a hiding place - in one case the mothers had been ordered to kill their own babies by soldiers who feared for their lives.

When American troops closed in, having fought their way across the island, hundreds leapt from cliffs as helpless soldiers looked on. Others had killed themselves earlier, crowding tightly round a single Japanese conscript who would then pull the pin on a grenade. 'In our group the hand grenade wouldn't go off,' one old lady said. 'That's the only reason I survived.' She remembered the soldier hammering it desperately to get it to work, an odd sort of memory for a grandmother to have.

The pressure not to surrender wasn't simply a matter of immediate fear. One soldier, who had hidden for months and had been declared dead, recalled the mixed reception when he got home, the embarrassment of having a dead hero transformed to a living son. 'My father's face expressed ambiguous emotions,' he said. Though the film didn't mention it, it's an intriguing fact that Saipan is now quite a popular holiday resort for Japanese tourists, with tours of the suicide cliffs and caves a speciality.

Arts and Entertainment
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore