Last Night's TV - Ian Hislop's Age of the Do-Gooders, BBC2; Art of Germany, BBC4; The Trip, BBC2

The industrial revolutionaries

In 1987 an elderly architect called Michael Dale was found bludgeoned to death at his home in Shropshire. Suspicion fell upon his ex-wife, Baroness Susan de Stempel, who was tried and acquitted for want of evidence, although in the course of the police investigation it was found that she had systematically swindled her aged aunt, Lady Illingworth, out of a fortune. Along with two of her children, the Baroness – whose later marriage had been to an old roué with a claim to an ancient Latvian title – was convicted of fraud, and sent to prison.

I know about this story because at the time of Dale's murder Baroness de Stempel lived in the tiny village of Docklow in Herefordshire, where I live now; indeed, there's a phone box on our drive that she often used, doubtless when she wanted not to be overheard. She's long since left the area, yet more than two decades on the gossip still reverberates hereabouts. As for the relevance of Susan de Stempel's story to Ian Hislop's Age of the Do-Gooders, it is indirect but straightforward. Her maiden name was Wilberforce and she was the great-great granddaughter of William Wilberforce, celebrated by posterity for his pivotal role in the abolition of slavery two centuries ago, but a fierce moral crusader in all kinds of other ways.

That his descendant should have turned out to be an amoral fraudster is an historical irony that would probably have appealed to some of Wilberforce's contemporaries, who considered him a dreadful old spoilsport. Something of a convert to righteousness having been a bit of a lad himself, he spoke out against vice of all sorts, and also helped to form the RSPCA. To convey just what an upright fellow he was, Hislop collared, or perhaps dog-collared, the Archbishop of Canterbury, who declared that he, Wilberforce rather than Hislop, had "made a remarkable difference to the human dignity of millions".

The Private Eye editor does these documentaries very well, with authority but not solemnity. And he always gets good talking heads, which is impressive, given that some of them must have been skewered by his magazine over the years, but then you can never underestimate the seductive power of the television camera. Whatever, the head of the Civil Service Sir Gus O'Donnell popped up to lavish praise on a slightly later do-gooder, Charles Trevelyan, who put an end to the "jobs for the boys" ethos in the civil service by instituting the exacting entrance exam that in slightly different form still exists today. At a stroke of the quill, civil servants became brighter and politically non-partisan, their job prospects no longer dependent on being born into privilege. O'Donnell himself is a beneficiary of Trevelyan's vision; he went to a south London state school, not Eton, Harrow or Winchester.

Wilberforce, Trevelyan and other do-gooders were not perfect (Trevelyan was shockingly high-handed in his treatment of the benighted Irish during the potato famine), but together they rid society of many inequities, and diluted the curse of nepotism. Nor was it entirely coincidental that they emerged within a few decades of each other. Hislop attributed it to a reaction against the general licentiousness of the late 18th century, and to the new imperatives of the Industrial Revolution. Not, of course, that social injustice had exactly been wiped out by 1850. The novels of Charles Dickens positively depended on it.

Great literary and artistic creativity has always coincided with periods of human suffering, whether the suffering is caused by social inequality, religious persecution, war, plague or all of the above. And nowhere is this truer than Germany. "I believe one of the most revealing ways to explore the complexities of the German character is through the story of German art," said Andrew Graham-Dixon, and of course he would, wouldn't he, as the similarly double-barrelled Mandy Rice-Davies once said in different circumstances. His series, after all, is called Art of Germany.

Still, he more than backed up his assertion, explaining how the perennial contradictions of the German psyche are reflected in art: the need for escapism on the one hand, the desire for control on the other; the love of nature, versus the love of the machine. Once of this newspaper, Graham-Dixon was a most genial, eloquent and informative guide on a tour through Germany and through the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the "abyss of the Third Reich where art was twisted into a tool of terror". His scripts are terrific, and ably supported by his charm, enthusiasm and persuasiveness. In the nicest possible way, he makes me feel a little inadequate for ambling into all those churches on all those holidays, briefly admiring a fresco or a sculpture, and then ambling out again. Where the rest of us see a nice bit of marble, he finds an absorbing story.

Also filling me with feelings of inadequacy – for the comparative dullness of my banter, the relative poverty of my impressions – are Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, regrettably coming towards the end of The Trip. There's been precious little else on the box these last few years that has got my wife and me shedding big fat tears of laughter, but The Trip never fails to oblige. I love it for its originality and its daring. And hats off to Coogan in particular for allowing himself to seem so obsessed with his place in the entertainment firmament. Last night, he compared his own three Baftas to Brydon's none, which wouldn't have been quite so funny without the suspicion that he meant it.

Arts and Entertainment
Emo rockers Fall Out Boy

music

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment

film

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
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
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
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.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links