Last Night's TV: When a bit of rhythm beats the blues

Imagine... BBC1; True Stories: The Shutka Book of Records, More4
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The Independent Culture

Anyone for a guided trip round Alan Yentob's brain? I hadn't exactly bargained for this when I settled down to watch last night's Imagine..., "Oliver Sacks: Tales of Music and the Brain". I thought we were going to get a pretty straightforward spin-off from Sacks's most recent book, Musicophilia, which looks at the neurological origins of our musical ability and appreciation, taking its clues (as neurological investigations often do) from cases in which the wiring seems to have got crossed. And, up to a point that's what Louise Lockwood's film delivered, though the word "straightforward" perhaps doesn't entirely do justice to the pleasing Quay Brothers-style animations with which the film was adorned. But then, after detailing a number of the remarkable case histories featured in Sacks's book, Yentob offered himself up as a neurological guinea pig, sliding into an MRI scanner while three different pieces of music were played to him, one cheerful ("Is This the Way to Amarillo"), one disturbing (some unidentifiable piece of thrash metal) and one that had a special emotional meaning for him (one of Strauss's Four Last Songs, sung by Jessye Norman).

When he returned a week later, the scientist who'd performed the experiment said he'd found something strange. Frankly, this isn't the kind of sentence you want to hear just after you've had your brain scanned for journalistic reasons, but there wasn't any bad news, just the revelation that Yentob's brain, which had offered up only localised flickers of activity for "Amarillo" and the thrash metal, had turned entirely scarlet on hearing Jessye Norman, evidence that his entire brain had suffused with blood. He listened to her and his mind blushed. The neuroscientist said he had never seen anything quite like it before. This means, I guess, that Imagine... can now claim to have the only presenter scientifically proven to be culturally sensitive to high art, although, no tests having been conducted on Melvyn Bragg or Lauren Laverne of The Culture Show, advertising standards won't allow them to boast that they beat all other leading brands. One can't help but suspect, too, that we would have spent less time in front of the brain scans if they'd revealed that Yentob's synapses actually got the hots for Tony Christie.

The case histories, incidentally, were fascinating, including a young New Yorker with severe Tourette's syndrome who had discovered that he could channel his disability into wild drum solos and a severely autistic blind pianist called Derek Paravicini, who can play complex pieces by ear after hearing them just once. Since I'm only marginally more musical than a concrete bollard, I couldn't really tell you whether the claims made for these performers exactly matched up to what they did on screen (I suspect hyperbole often creeps in in these cases, ushered in by a kindly desire to say the very best you can about people who've been given a rough deal in life). But that their abilities involved something besides a lot of practice seemed clear. When you saw them playing solo you wondered briefly whether in rhythm and melody they'd simply found a more appealing prison cell for their trapped and trammelled minds, but the film revealed at the end that they could play in concert with others too. Music wasn't a different kind of cage, it was an opening to the world of ordinary talents.

I don't want to appear philistine when I say that The Shutka Book of Records, screened in the True Stories strand, had one of the least enticing openings I've seen for several months. But I somehow doubt that my cerebral cortex flared like a traffic light on reading that the film had been made "With support from the Czech State Grant for Cinema and the Wojwodina Provincial Department of Culture". What little activity there was probably died away completely on seeing the opening shot – a flickering monochrome image of a rusting car wreck on a wind-blown rubbish dump in the Balkans. Things looked up after that, though, and in the end Aleksandar Manic's film turned out to be a memorable curiosity, a portrait of the Roma residents of Shatka, a suburb of Skopje.

I doubt a British viewer could have watched this without thinking of Borat – not a comfortable connection to make, given the condescension of that comedy, but difficult to keep at bay when you're introduced to people like Uncle Sali, who beats the genies from his horses with a spade before taking them to market. Detailing Shatka's obsessions with competition and music, goose-fighting and superstition, Manic, I suspect, intended to offer us an image of undefeated vitality in one of the poorest regions of Europe. It was tricky, though, to ignore the poverty of mind that accompanied the material hardships. Occasionally I think Manic found it hard too. "To put two children through school costs $10,000," the voiceover said at one point, "but in Shutka they'd rather spend $20,000 on a circumcision". Lousy choice, guys.

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