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.

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

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.

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'