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
Sunday 20 April 2008
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.
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