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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
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.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album