Last night's TV: History Cold Case, BBC2, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, BBC4, All At Sea, ITV1

Capital dig was a thrilling find
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The Independent Culture

Discovering good things just before they die, discontinue or disappear might just be my speciality. I am, if I do say so myself, excellent at it. It's always been the way: the Libertines, Lost, Walkers Spicy Chilli Crisps. I stumble upon them, eons after everyone else, and then they vanish, leaving me bereft until the next fleeting thing comes along. In this case, that would be History Cold Case. My goodness, how I wish I'd tuned in sooner. It was the best thing on last night by a long way. It was also the last in the series. Typical, eh? Anyway, it was great: historical, crime-y, and science-y all at once. And just pop-enough to make sense to a dunce like me.

Professor Sue Black heads up Dundee University's Centre for Anatomy and Human Identification, which specialises in, um, anatomy and identification. In this case, the identification of a century-old skeleton. They were investigating the case of a young Victorian woman, after finding her remains ravaged by syphilis during a dig in London. They estimated her age as early 20s, and put her height at four foot seven. And then, with nothing but the bones, went about identifying who she was.

It's an astonishing process – and, as it happened, not nearly as impossible as it sounded. The site of her discovery was also the site of a Victorian burial ground, used for interring the very poorest in unmarked graves. And syphilis, of course, is most commonly sexually transmitted. The team's first guess? She was a prostitute. They're right, as it happens. A CT scan revealed she was just 17, and had been suffering from the disease for years, with the infection dating back to childhood. The age of consent in Victorian England was just 13, and it was widely held that sleeping with a virgin offered a cure for infection. More surprising still was the discovery of our woman's high mercury levels, which would indicate that she had received some kind of treatment, despite her destitution. This, of course, was rather helpful when it came to tracing her identity – a task left in the hands of a researcher at the London Metropolitan Archives. After scouring hospital archives and burial records they were, amazingly, able to pin down her identity to a single candidate: one Elizabeth Mitchell.

While we got a nose around London, and a gruesome series of diseased waxworks, Sue's colleague Caroline was hard at work on a facial reconstruction – the results of which were disarmingly life-like. The whole thing was fascinating: from grave-digging to identification. It's the sort of thing that makes one want to become a historian, or a scientist, or both at once.

If History Cold Case was the best thing on last night, Behind the Scenes at the Museum came a close second. Another unexpectedly engaging little programme, it too was the last in a series. Last night we were at Ellesmere Port's National Waterways Museum, just one of the small museums around the country struggling to cope in the face of recession. It was set up in the 1970s after a group of volunteers decided to revive the local waterway warehouses, and it thrived on their enthusiasm. Lately, however, things haven't gone so smoothly: the volunteers are still there, as are the exhibits (including barges and narrowboats, some dating back to the 19th century). The visitors? Not so much. A new director, Stuart, had been installed, with the task of turning things around.

He's an unlikely hero: a one-time McDonald's manager and by no means a boat enthusiast. Still, a hero is precisely what he was, treading the trembling tightrope between managerial efficiency and community-minded empathy with aplomb. A round of redundancies gave rise to understandable bad feeling, but, with most staff blaming the "senior senior management" above Stuart's head, he managed to make good. When one of the volunteers, the most anorakish of the lot, became the source of complaint among the others, Stuart diplomatically extracted him from the group, giving him a whole new area of responsibility.

One year in, and Stuart's modernising efforts were rewarded: visitor numbers were up, and he had won the respect of the museum's volunteers. When he announced his decision to resign, freeing up more funding for employment, his staff were devastated. Still, they continued his success with a packed summer festival and another 50 per cent boost in numbers. For the National Waterways Museum, at least, the future looks secure.

Time, then, for one final series finale. Yes, I know I said I wouldn't return to All at Sea but I didn't have any choice. Behind the Scenes and History Cold Case notwithstanding, there really wasn't much on last night. And, you know, this was the last episode so maybe, I reasoned, we would have a chance of finding out what the point was after all.

I was wrong. Our second-rate slebs were on the final leg of their journey to London. Richard and co were back on the posh boat with Rosemary's team on an old naval ship. It wasn't wholly without interest: we got to see Beachy Head, Britain's most famous suicide destination. And we got to watch Rosemary spit out jellied eels in front of a horrified shopkeeper. And Richard fly a plane. And then it was over. They reached London. What an incredible journey, they marvelled. For them, perhaps. For us? Well, it was an awful lot like watching someone else's holiday home videos. Which is to say: Dull.

a.jarvis@independent.co.uk

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