Last Night's TV: The Genius of Charles Darwin, Channel 4
First Cut: Being Maxine Carr, More4
The Hairy Bakers, BBC2
Tuesday 19 August 2008
Never mind the Olympic Games, The Genius of Charles Darwin last night offered a display of mental and verbal gymnastics the equal of anything seen on the pommel horses and asymmetric bars of Beijing, culminating in a head to head between the vast intellect of Professor Richard Dawkins and the similarly impressive mind of Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was absorbing stuff, perhaps more evocative of the judo than the gymnastics, with Dawkins assuming a position of absolute certitude about evolutionary theory, and the Archbish unable to floor him even with some ingenious manoeuvring on the Virgin Birth.
I admire Dawkins. Not everyone does, even those who know that he is articulating unimpeachable truths, although they are not as hostile as those who take indignant issue with the professor's determined atheism. Here, he read out some of the more entertaining of his many poison-pen emails – "your famed intelligence is nothing more than a fart from God" and "I hope you get hit by a church van tonight and you die slowly" – from people whose interpretation of those Christian virtues of charity and tolerance seems a trifle confused. Not, it should be said, that Dawkins himself is especially indulgent towards those who oppose him. I especially like the way colour rises in his cheeks and truculence enters his eyes when the irresistible force of his argument hits an immovable object, as embodied in last night's programme by a celebrated Australian creationist called John Mackay, who rejects Darwinism as hocus-pocus and told an adoring crowd that "you don't die because you get old, you die because you're a sinner". At such moments, for all the Prof's considerable rhetorical skills, I discern a real effort to suppress a yell of "bollocks!"
There was plenty more of this in the United States, to which Dawkins looked, predictably enough, for gold-medal dogmatism. When the Russians launched Sputnik 50 years ago, kicking off the space race, science became the main priority in American education, and the theory of evolution took its place in every school curriculum. But how to reconcile this with religious belief, especially across the so-called Bible Belt? Dawkins explained that an absurd compromise called "creation science" was invented, a fusion of scientific language and religious doctrine. Depressingly, he even found it alive and well in Britain, espoused by a chemistry teacher at a northern grammar school, who firmly believes that the Earth is only as old as the Bible says it is. God was there, goes this fellow's reasoning, and scientists were not there. So we should take His word over theirs. There really isn't much you can say to someone like that, although Dawkins, bless his reddening cheeks, certainly tried.
Admirably, he also confronted science teachers who believe as implicitly as he does in Darwinism. Terrified of challenging the religious beliefs of their pupils, they present science only as "a way of thinking". Dawkins was aghast. "But your evidence is there," he cried. "Their evidence is not there."
Sometimes, though, evidence can be imagined. Being Maxine Carr was a small gem of a documentary, first shown last year and given a welcome repeat last night. The director, Maxx Ginnane, found three women who have all been mistaken for Carr, who notoriously served 17 months for conspiring to pervert the course of justice during the investigation into the murders of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells. One of them, Marianne, offered a striking description of the moment she realised what people were thinking. "I felt," she said, "as though molten lead had been poured into my stomach." Even the making of this programme failed to convince her neighbours. One of them conceded that Marianne was not Maxine, but only because Maxine no longer exists: she has a new name, face, hairstyle, maybe even a new accent, making her a bogeywoman who can fit any profile that suits those who choose to believe, perhaps because it somehow adds spice to unfulfilled lives, that "evil" flourishes in their midst. Meanwhile, Carr continues to be "spotted" on a daily basis – a housewife in East Kilbride, working on the checkout at Asda somewhere in the Midlands, a librarian on the Isle of Wight. She certainly gets around.
So, more cheerfully, do the Hairy Bikers, who have restyled themselves The Hairy Bakers in this new series about Britain's bread and pie tradition. I confess that I had not seen anything of Simon King and Dave Myers before yesterday, although my wife had recommended them to me as "engaging". It took a while for me to be engaged – they seemed to spend most of this programme dressed as smurfs and exchanging leaden quips – but eventually their sheer conviviality kneaded the resistance out of me. And I learnt something new – that the concept of the ploughman's lunch was invented by advertising men in the 1960s, to entice us into eating in pubs. If Richard Dawkins tells you that it originates much further back in time, don't believe him.
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