In Search of Medieval Britain, BBC4
Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press, BBC4
Inside the Medieval Mind, BBC4
Pushing Daisies, ITV1
Living Goddess, Channel 4

BBC4's season about life in the Middle Ages shows why TV loves digging around in the past – preferably with Stephen Fry on board to make sense of it all

Everyone makes free with the medieval period. It's a smash-and-grab raid. Cervantes, Rossetti, Wagner and Tolkien all took whatever they fancied, be it a see-through nightie or a chunky goblet. Then there's
Camelot, the Star Wars franchise, the cod-cassock fiction genre of monkish sleuths, Dungeons and Dragons, drip-dry goth daywear, and family-friendly jousting. And then vertiginously far down the food chain there's the BBC4 Medieval season trailer, in which musical instruments of torture like hurdy-gurdys and zithers play Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady", while animated skulls and gargoyles do a jerky little dance. Cod-medievalism, with chips.

The season itself has smart stuff in it, but it's predictable. BBC4 found themselves a medieval academic who looks a bit like Erin O'Connor (OK, I admit that is quite an achievement) and sent her off to stand outside windy castles. Dr Alixe Bovey, for so she is called, has a Canadian accent (how modern) and says Doo-ram for Durham. Making her navigate the M3 using the 600-year-old Gough map was a nice touch. With spine-tingling originality they called the show In Search of Medieval Britain.

I don't know why Stephen Fry, right, was chosen to present a programme about the Gutenberg press, but I'm glad he was (Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press, BBC4). His enthusiasm and wonder were considerable, yet he stayed at just one remove from the nerdiness that tends to afflict those who spend their time making working reconstructions of German 15th-century printing presses. He wrung several moments of delightful entertainment out of the subject: he discussed the making of vellum editions of the Bible while standing in front of a herd of cattle, which meant he could point to one calf and say, "You could be Genesis." (Andrew Lloyd Webber's catchphrase "You could be Nancy" sprang uncomfortably to mind at this point.)

Fry's charming presentation also included my favourite sentence of the week, which he pronounced, apparently spontaneously, while holding up the first letter he and his compositor chums made for the press: "This has been hand carved and grooved and shaped and emeried and rasped and shaped and hardened and tempered, and now it is the key that unlocks the technology that changes the world." It's likely that took a few takes, but one of the reasons Fry is a good factual presenter is that he is a good actor.

Best of the season so far, however, has been the excellent Inside the Medieval Mind, by Professor Robert Bartlett for the Open University, because it provides both wise overview and moreish detail. Mad monks' marginalia, illuminated bestiaries, dog-heads, monopods and fish-men all feature, just as they should.

Pushing Daisies (ITV1) has a fairy-tale narrator archly intoning: "When she was eight years, three weeks and 48 hours old, she realised..." Oh puh-leeze. She realised what? That life was too short for this kind of faux-naive crap? Laboriously whimsical, like a Tim Burton-by-numbers, its woozy escapism gives "kooky" a bad name. Sure, it's gorgeous, and the constantlyunfolding visual richness lulls you into a state of happy sedation, but so does In the Night Garden. Pushing Daisies (and honestly, what self-respecting title has a gerund in it? Ok, ok, Leaving Las Vegas aside...) has a fey infantilism that makes you yearn for the salty surrealism of Guillermo Del Toro. That said, Anna Friel is excellent, and her American accent faultless. I bet she'd say Doo-ram, if required. The first series runs to nine instalments, but ITV had only eight slots available, so it has vanished the second episode. Small blessings.

Living Goddess (and now I retract that gerund comment absolutely) was an extraordinary documentary about the Kumari child-goddesses of Nepal, filmed at a dramatic juncture in the country's history. The little girl, painted and preening in her divinity, yawned languorously as her grandmother worshipped at her tikka-daubed feet and the king of Nepal came to get her blessing. Inside her home, all was suffused with the calm of timeless ritual. Outside on the streets, angry Maoists fought for democracy and secularisation.

The material alone would have made a masterpiece, so the film-makers let the material be. They added only subtitles and occasional explanatory text. This rigorously hands-off approach – almost a Dogme documentary – meant the film gained great sensitivity, but lost some clarity. The texture of Nepalese traditions took on their own poetry: the syncopated clanging bells, the colours, the way a man petted a goat's furry neck before killing it – and this meant that when the Maoists in all their modernity burst into the film, the aesthetic contrast was very powerful. Can history be told by aesthetics? Perhaps not, but nevertheless, the film is a marvellous achievement.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor