Last Night's TV: Rome Wasn't Built in a Day/Channel 4<br />Kidnap and Ransom/ITV1<br />Human Planet/BBC1

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The Independent Culture

I want to be authentic. I want this column, this review, to be as authentic as possible. So, I've decided to write it on a typewriter. You know, like what they had in the olden days. Actually, scrap that. I'm writing it on a scroll. Words? Pfff. Only hieroglyphics in my department. At a stretch, I might whip out the old tablet (not the iPad kind). Computers – remind me what they are again.

Of course, I might be some time. Nine-hundred words is an awful lot when you're using the tools of the ancients. I'll need time, and I'll need patience. In all, I think I should be ready to file in, say, March. Deal?

Perhaps not. Still, if I were a builder, things might be different. There's a bunch of builders doing this very thing on the telly as I write. In Rome Wasn't Built in a Day, they're "transforming themselves into ancient craftsmen", in order to create an "authentic Roman villa from scratch". Sounds like fun, doesn't it? The only thing is, no one seems to know quite why they're doing it. Is there a purpose, entertainment or otherwise? Officially, of course, there is: it's all in conjunction with English Heritage, so school pupils can go and visit and learn about times gone by. Still, I'm not buying it. Do children really care about how the building was built? Would you care if I'd written this in hieroglyphics? A building's either ancient Roman or it's not. This one isn't. That its makers didn't use wheelbarrows (on which more later) is sort of irrelevant. Isn't it?

In truth, the builders' "transformation" wasn't quite as dramatic as one might hope. It started off fairly promisingly – "it's a bit like a nativity, isn't it?" remarked one as they donned white headdresses to take the auguries – but the fun wasn't to last. Before long, our chaps were back in their hard hats, labouring away like any other day. The only thing Roman about it was the tools – or lack thereof. No power drills, no sponges, no wheelbarrows. Bricks have to be chipped out of stone, and equipment transported by a wooden cart. When they tried to cheat, a little, by reintroducing the wheelbarrow, it all went off. Dai, the history buff who's been appointed to keep things "authentic", strode down, cheeks puffing like a blowfish: "Wheelbarrows are not to be on site," he chanted, like an ancient mystic dispelling bad spirits. And so back to the wheelbarrowless grind it was.

The result was an arsenal of injuries for our builders, and very, very slow progress. It wasn't, to my mind, riveting viewing. Over the course of an hour, I learned a lot about ancient cement, but rather less about ancient Rome.

Part two of Kidnap and Ransom, and they've upped the ante even further. When we left her, Naomi Shaffer (Emma Fielding) was on the verge of being handed over to ageing hostage negotiator Dominic King (Trevor Eve). In a not entirely unpredictable bit of cliff-hanging, she was, at the final moment, snatched away by a rival gang. This group, we learned last night, are an altogether slicker operation than their predecessors. Headed up by the sinister Willard (a glorious turn from John Hannah), they know exactly what they want and how to get it. King managed, at least, to get Shaffer home, returned to her family in England. Though again the episode ended with a twist, this one even more heart-clutchingly awful than before. Next week the drama concludes. I for one can't wait.

Goodness, Human Planet is good. This week's episode was all about deserts, and the people who live there. We can survive weeks without food but only a few days without water. The result? Societies all over the world that go to the most extraordinary lengths to quench their thirst. There was the 16-year-old boy herding his family's cattle in Mali. His journey to the watering hole – arduous in itself – is made all the more tense by the latent threat of a nearby herd of elephants. If he reached the water after them, it will all have been consumed. If he arrives at the same time, he'll have to risk being charged.

Then there were the people of Chile's Atacama desert, a place so dry that there are next to no land-level sources of water. Instead, inhabitants catch moisture from the fog in giant nets. It's the driest place on earth, and yet somehow they make it work. Quite what they're doing there in the first place is a mystery. Wouldn't life be easier if they left?

Finally, there were the Wodaabe people of Niger – my favourites – who wait all year for a drop of rain and get 15cm at once. To celebrate, they hold a fertility festival, the geriwol. For a few days, the bonds of marriage are set aside, and everyone becomes fair game. The men don headdresses and paint their faces before dancing for the women. It's the most remarkable ritual: to a Western eye they look ridiculous, of course – but to the women of their village they look downright seductive. Three are picked out to be rewarded with a new lover. The female judges' criteria being an egret-like posture, well-exposed teeth, and animated dancing. To those who lose the competition, the disappointment is bitter – and none know when another rain will come.