Last night's viewing - Freddie Mercury: the Great Pretender – an Imagine Special, BBC1; Order and Disorder with Jim Al-Khalili BBC4

There is no disputing Freddie Mercury's greatness, or the charisma of his performances and how far the on-stage flamboyances diverged from the shy, RP-accented man he was out of the fan-filled stadiums. What is at contention here is whether we needed another Freddie Mercury documentary, so soon after BBC2's Queen documentary last year.

For some of us, it doesn't seem all that long ago that his death was announced, in November 1991, 24 hours after Mercury confirmed that he had Aids, upon which followed various TV homages that reflected on the dualities in his life, his so-called "secret" homosexuality, his HIV and of course his supreme talent for music. Alan Yentob's Imagine series promised to take us in a different direction with Freddie Mercury: the Great Pretender, though even the title seemed a touch tired. This would, apparently, show us the real man, and one who was itching to forge a solo career. We'd see new and rarely seen footage. We would, in all of this, presumably learn something new. Did we? We may have done but, overall, it felt rather more like a trip down rock memory lane than an hour of revelation or revisionism.

This isn't to say that Mercury's presence wasn't absorbing. He was an enthralling performer. Here he was again in all his pavonine glory, a camped-up, balletic "macho man", singing " I Want to Break Free" wearing fake breasts. He was a rock star who was able to mesmerise his audience with his big, thrilling presence as confidently as a magician casting a spell. It was also touching to be reminded of his off-stage vulnerability, in the one-to-one interviews in which he spoke about life and – heartbreakingly – about love ("The more I open up, the more I get hurt").

But the déjà vu in it all was so pronounced that it felt more like a repeat than a new documentary. One over-familiar "talking head", Paul Gambaccini, didn't exactly help, having just drawn breath from his reflections on The Beatles in a BBC documentary last week.

We were taken on a brief tour of Mercury's early years, which were got through a little too routinely (cue piano music for childhood photographs and brief musings on how his itinerant family life in Zanzibar and India left him unsettled). Then we trod more familiar ground over his special relationship with an early girlfriend, Mary Austin. Brian May and Roger Taylor were there, talking about their incredulity at his terminal diagnosis and his musical virtuosity. Thankfully, there was some unexpected material – Mercury recorded with Michael Jackson and liked to bring his pet lama into the studio, and an interview with Spanish opera singer and collaborator Montserrat Caballé revealed that he stopped kissing her on the cheek when he found out he was HIV-positive. These were surprising moments, but not enough to sustain the freshness of the hour.

Jim Al-Khalili took us through the rules of thermo-dynamics in Order and Disorder, with accompanying images that were so big and vivid that, at times, they resembled the wacky, molten-earth bits from The Tree of Life. Aside from these interludes – as bizarre here as they were in Terrence Malick's film – this was a stimulating hour that made science sound very close to metaphysics. The upshot of it all was that all energy was destined to degrade and atrophy. In layman's terms, it sounded like a theory of mortality, on a universal scale. There is a finite amount of energy in the universe, and while humans have learned to harness its "flow", our challenge now is to unlock more concentrated forms through hydrogen atoms. There is where Al-Khalili lost me, but it didn't seem to matter. Great rousing statements kept me afloat, such as, "The universe shares the same fate as a cup of tea", and "science is all about seeing what everyone else has seen but thinking what no one else has thought."

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece