Last Night's TV: Marchlands/ITV1
Louis Theroux: the Ultra Zionists/BBC2
Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner?/BBC4
Friday 04 February 2011
Nisha and Mark have just moved into their new house. A big-city lawyer, she's having difficulty settling in. It's all a bit eerie: no noise, no people. But it's not just that; there's something else going on too. When she starts stripping wallpaper, she stumbles across an old mural on the walls. "Alice in the Woods," it says. Midway through uncovering it, the ladder she's standing on gives way, sending her flying.
There's something going on with Mark, too. He grew up near Marchlands but gets all funny when he's asked about it. What's he got to hide, eh? Nisha catches him signing to a local lady. Who knew he could do that?
Flash back 20 years and things are no less normal. Alex Kingston seems to be living at Marchlands now (that's the house). Where's her stethoscope? She's got a daughter, instead: Amy. Amy keeps complaining that her imaginary friend is keeping her awake at night. She won't let her sleep and she does naughty things like flood the bathroom. Her name's Alice, she insists, and she lives there.
It's not subtle, this Marchlands, but I think I quite like it. There was another decade, and another family: the Bowens, the place's 1960s residents. They keep talking about Alice, too. Can you guess why? She was their daughter, and now she's dead. She drowned one day in mysterious circumstances. Her mother, Ruth, is hounded by guilt and her father can't look at her mother without seeing his daughter.
And so we flitted between each decade, the contemporary couple settling into village life, the Eighties parents trying to reason with their daughter and the original inhabitants gnawing away at their own sanity. It was never very hard to see what was coming next, and it was more than a little silly, but Marchlands was fun. Fun in a guilty, implausible sort of way. It helps that the performances were so strong: Jodie Whittaker as the tense, grieving Ruth, Shelley Conn – she of Mistresses fame – as Northern lass Nisha. Judging from the trailer for next week, things only get weirder from here, but, based on last night's evidence, I want to be there to watch.
Louis Theroux might be just what the Middle East needs. In The Ultra Zionists, the gangly investigator took his brand of quiet, schoolboyish questioning to some of the least quiet, schoolboyish people on the planet.
We all know about the West Bank. We hear about it all the time. But we don't – or at least I certainly didn't – know very much about what life is actually like there. Conflict-ridden, sure. Hostile, yes. But also profoundly, profoundly weird. As Theroux followed a series of settlers around, we saw just how up close and personal things can get. Defiant in their divine right to what is legally not their land, whole families live day in day out blocking out the taunts, the loathing, the rage of their neighbours. In one town, residents routinely dump their rubbish outside the local settlers' house. Verbal abuse is constant. Why do they do this? Why not just return to Israel and live peacefully? It's utterly, utterly baffling.
Of course, it helps that the Israeli government provides security for all these people, despite proclaiming their actions illegal. Border police and security escorts surround their homes, throwing tear gas in response to children's stones and arresting youths they consider agitators. Theroux joined a group of protestors to see how hot things can get. The answer? Very. The soldiers' accents sound exactly like the South African one. Why is that? I've always wondered.
Neither side in the conflict came across particularly well, though it was the bloody single-mindedness of the Zionists that stole the show. Almost all of them said they would stay where they were even if military support were withdrawn. "We're the only country that accepts a united Jerusalem," boasted Danny, Theroux's sometime guide. "The world's got a problem. Doesn't bother me."
Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner? didn't offer us anything particularly new, but it was fascinating nonetheless. Historians have been arguing for ages over what, exactly, Lincoln was thinking when he went to war with the Southern states in an attempt to stop their secession. He definitely wasn't the Great Emancipator back then; he just didn't want slavery to spread westward. He's even quoted as saying he thought black people to be "physically different" from white ones. "I am not in favour of Negro citizenship," he insisted. At one point he even considered a policy of "recolonisation" to solve the slave problem. Which is to say, deporting the post-war slave community wholesale to Africa and the Caribbean.
Of course, it's not clear how much of this was Genuine Lincoln and how much was Politician Lincoln. It doesn't really matter. It happened – along with the hundreds of thousands of deaths that could have been prevented had he simply let the South "slip quietly away". So, obviously, he's not a saint. No one is. But when it came to the crunch, Lincoln did free the slaves – more than that, he became a symbol that future generations could use to advance arguments in favour of civil rights. And so, broadly speaking, a Good Thing.
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