Around the World in 80 Trades, Channel 4
Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, Channel 4
Five Minutes of Heaven, BBC2
A market analyst loses money hand over fist, way out of his depth in foreign markets. Does this sound familiar?
Sunday 12 April 2009
Telly asked us to sympathise with the devil last week, come he in the form of a sectarian killer, a tyrannical king, or a "market analyst". A colleague on the business desk of this newspaper assures me that market analysts are different from bankers, but I remain unconvinced. Conor Woodman, a former City boy who used to broker deals worth hundreds of millions of pounds, told us he grew bored by his job (yes, as a "market analyst") and quit, hence his decision to withdraw £25,000 of his own money and head off Around the World in 80 Trades, haggling with the world's oldest business brains, and using the profit from each transaction to fund the next leg of his journey.
"Forget the economic doom and gloom," Woodman pleaded in his introductory voice-over. Easy for you to say, I thought, watching him swan off to Sudan with a TV crew in tow. Crouching in a truck bed on the way to his first trade, with the camel merchants of Khartoum, Woodman disputed the notion that money is the root of all evil. "Without trade and the pursuit of wealth," he argued, "no one would know about anything beyond their own front door .... [It's] the reason people interact."
Happily, this total banker – sorry, "market analyst" – was in for a rude awakening. Thanks to his ignorance of camel sales etiquette, most of the traders declined to interact with him at all. Thousands of pounds in the hole, he thought he'd better try something a little easier, and changed quickly from an explorer into a tourist, flying 2,000 miles south to Victoria Falls for a bungee jump. Oh, and to close a deal with Craig, a white, English-speaking Zambian coffee grower, whose beans he proposed to export to South Africa.
Despite finding himself in the more comfortable surroundings of a Starbucks-style Cape Town coffee shop, Woodman failed yet again to make a trade. For a "market analyst", he seemed to do very little analysing of his markets, and it turned out Craig's coffee was actually a bit rubbish. Finally, he managed to shift a few bags for a knock-down price. This week he's off to Asia, where he plans to flog red wine and chilli sauce to the middle classes, and haggle some livestock and stones out of Kyrgyzstani horse traders and Chinese jade miners. I know where I expect him to meet with success, and it ain't with the horse traders. Or the miners.
If Woodman promised something exotic but produced something familiar, then in Henry VIII: Mind of a Tyrant, David Starkey gave us something familiar and made it seem new again. Starkey may be the foremost Henrician of our age, but even Jonathan Rhys Meyers couldn't make the Tudors tedious, what with all that sex and blood and blood and sex and more sex.
No, Starkey's skill in this series is to illuminate not only the gripping history but also the work of the historian. Far more engrossing than dodgy re-enactments were the scenes in which he pored over original source documents, describing them as "magical objects". From them, in his quest to explain the tyrant's inner life, Starkey deduced the impact of Henry's mother on his handwriting and thus his education. He uncovered, too, the future king's correspondence with childhood heroes from the Dutch humanist scholar Erasmus to Philip, a swashbuckling archduke of Burgundy.
Throughout, Starkey reminded us that history is formed from a mixture of fact and guesswork. Five Minutes of Heaven did something similar for television itself. This genre-bending one-off drama concerned an abortive meeting – organised by a TV production company – between Joe Griffin (James Nesbitt) and Alastair Little (Liam Neeson), who, as a young UVF gunman in Belfast in 1975, shot Griffin's brother dead in front of him.
Griffin, Little and his crime are all very real, but their present-day meeting was imagined by screenwriter Guy Hibbert, helped by speculative interviews with both men. The film's first half worked hard to expose the shortcomings of the medium. To elucidate the minds of such real-life protagonists is beyond the powers of television, it seemed to suggest – let alone for it to become a tool of reconciliation, the stated aim of the fictional documentary.
Griffin was asked to do a second take of a heart-rending moment, because the director was unhappy with the camerawork. Eventually, he decided he couldn't meet his brother's killer on camera after all. And Little's self-justifying narration was later revealed to be a false TV construction, too, a prepared speech to camera that also required a reshoot.
Yet, in Neeson's hands, that speech was magnificently persuasive, and when the pair did finally, fictionally meet, Hibbert's script and two superb central performances conspired to move me deeply anyway. That's the power of television, I guess.
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