Last Night's TV: Egypt's Lost Cities, BBC1
Gordon's Great Escape, Channel 4
Queen – Days of Our Lives, BBC2
Plenty to dig in this Egyptian adventure
Tuesday 31 May 2011
Fedoras off to BBC1 for not showing Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark on a Bank Holiday Monday but a 21st-century documentary version, more or less.
Egypt's Lost Cities explained how satellite and infra-red technology have enabled an American Egyptologist called Sarah Parcak to see what lies beneath the desert sand, leading, some looting during the recent revolution notwithstanding, to one of the most exciting excavations of modern times.
By examining her satellite pictures of Tanis, the lost city made famous either by a succession of pharaohs or by Steven Spielberg and Harrison Ford, depending on your point of view, and then passing them through an infra-red filter, Parcak was able to see "the ghostly image" of what was once the capital of ancient Egypt, complete with roads and even what looked spookily like gyratory systems.
This was truly mind-boggling stuff, and I could only give thanks that Tony Robinson hadn't been drafted in as presenter, because we have a fragile vase in our living-room that might not have stood up to his excitable high-pitched shouting. Instead, the presenters were Dallas Campbell and Liz Bonnin, both of whom added the sex appeal that Robinson, bless him, so manifestly lacks, and that archaeology, even archaeology this fascinating, so badly needs. Accompanying them almost every step of the way was Parcak, who saw her satellite-imaging technology yielding major results for the first time, and yet steadfastly refused to shed even a single tear of joy. That's academics for you. No sense of televisual occasion.
Whatever, the key to getting things to happen on the ground, following discoveries made in space, lay in convincing an Egyptian man called Dr Hawass, who enjoyed the truly splendid title of Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. I have long thought that John Simpson's grandiose title at the BBC, World Affairs Editor, sounds like a euphemism for God. But so does Secretary-General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities. It should really be the job title of someone who's been in charge of the universe since the year dot.
Anyway, Hawass is a forward-thinking sort of chap and recognised the literally ground-breaking potential of Parcak's findings. Permission was duly given to start digging, and thus she edged a little close to realising her lofty ambition, to uncover the 99 per cent of ancient Egypt that hasn't yet been found. If only there was an archaeology category, she'd be a cert for a Nobel Prize.
If there were a food category, I don't think Gordon Ramsay would be in the running, not after all that effing and blinding on television. And yet he has a certain rough charm, which he deployed to good effect in Thailand, in the last leg of Gordon's Great Escape.
Out there, they all thought he was a hoot, including Thailand's own famous telly chef, a chap called McDang whose programme goes out once a week, 52 weeks a year and who, according to Ramsay, "knows his shit", although in practically the next breath Ramsay asked him whether he was "a real chef or a TV chef". On the basis that he can't have been issuing orders in his own three-star kitchen while he was cheerfully goading McDang in Thailand, this is a distinction Ramsay increasingly appears to have forgotten himself.
Still, ever bumptious, he challenged his host to a cookery competition on McDang's own show. They each prepared three Thai dishes, the judges declaring one of McDang's the winner and one of Ramsay's the winner, with the third dish declared a draw. Which is what I call cooking the results, but everyone left very happy, except Gordon, who was effing happy.
As always with these series in which chefs visit foreign lands, Gordon's Great Escape is as much a travelogue as a cookery show, not that there was too much in last night's programme to make me want to check airfares to Bangkok, apart from the obvious attraction of a Thai boxing evening with drinks served by ladyboys, who suddenly broke into their own version of "Y.M.C.A.". It's not often that you see sheer bewilderment settle on the rocky crag that is Gordon's face, but this was one of those moments.
There was more bewildering behaviour from Johnny Foreigner in the concluding part of Queen – Days of Our Lives, a terrific documentary about the rock band. In 1981, when Queen performed in Argentina, a fellow was proposed as an ideal minder for Freddie Mercury on the basis that he had killed 212 people. Later, another minder's way of clearing space for the band's car in a Buenos Aires traffic jam, was to open the roof and wildly fire bullets into the air.
Barely 10 years later, alas, Mercury was dead, one of the highest-profile people to die from an Aids-related illness. His band-mates Brian May and Roger Taylor recalled his final months and weeks with such affectionate eloquence that I very nearly shed the tear that eluded Sarah the archaeologist. Indeed, their contributions throughout were a joy. It's not often that the story of a massively successful rock band is told with next to no anecdotes about terrible clashes of ego and terminal fallings-out, and yet this was fascinating even without them, thanks largely to Taylor and the ever-urbane May, a living contradiction of the old adage that a man can't have big, big hair and be considered suave.
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