Last night's viewing - Love and Marriage: a 20th Century Romance, BBC4; Vikings, BBC2

 

I spent quite a bit of time trying to work out what the subtitle to Love and Marriage: a 20th Century Romance actually meant. Was the implication supposed to be that marriage only really acquired a romantic aspect in the 20th century? Or simply that there was something so historically distinctive about marriage in the 20th century that it could be treated as a separate subject (in which case you might want to know which end of the 20th century they were talking about).

After a while, the thought occurred that it might be because the voiceover appeared to have been written by a Mills & Boon regular, with its wildly generalised boosting of the matrimonial state: "A commitment to see things through whatever the challenges ahead," we were told at one point, "bonded couples together in the most powerful way." What, all of them?

I never did find out and I suspect the true answer is just titular inflation. More and more programmes these days seem to feel that they don't really cut the mustard unless they take up two decks of headline in the Radio Times. What's at the core of Love and Marriage though – and it's a good core, which just about justifies putting up with several flaws – is interviews with people who've lived a long time. I'm not being euphemistic here. They are all old. But their longevity means that most of them have a foot in two worlds. The one in which they talk to us (governed by a general approval of emotional and sexual candour) and the one in which they were young, when different rules often applied.

Matching up the wonderful individuality of their memories with the ludicrously broad-brush conclusions of the narration proved quite beyond me. In many cases, they actually seemed to contradict the social trends they were notionally illustrating. But the charm of those memories wasn't a bit diminished.

It was touching to see how exactly emotional highpoints were preserved in people's minds. Diana Athill's first kiss occurred when she was waiting at a level crossing and her beau's lips were cold from the night air. John Salinas recalled proposing to his wife on a local park bench, after getting a hurry-up warning from his sister. "Darling, I've got £25," he recalled saying. "Will you marry me?" And then he choked up at the memory. And Eileen Cook remembered her anxiety, as a new bride, about what she should wear for her wedding night. Pyjamas or nightdress? "Talking to people at work, they said, 'Well you won't want either of them.' I said, 'I will! I'm not getting into bed without a nightie on!'" Untypically, she claimed to have forgotten the exact sequence of events on the night itself, but I bet she hasn't really. Final conclusion? That a universal experience unfolds with an infinite number of tiny private variations. And if you want some grander sociological payoff take this: "The new breed of young men and women were more questioning of authority." I've got no use for it.

Neil Oliver has been racing around Europe recently, chasing the Vikings. His travels are plotted with one of those scrolling red lines, giving the show a hint of Indiana Jones adventure, along with the rucksack you occasionally see him toting on screen, as if he carries all his belongings with him just in case he's kidnapped by Nazis and transported to Mongolia. Highlights of the programme last night included a visit to the runic inscription some Nordic hooligan called Haftan had scratched into a marble balustrade in the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (yes, they went that far south) and the bronze Indian statuette found in a Swedish Viking burial mound. It wasn't actually inscribed "My Dad went to Samarkand to trade furs and all I got was this lousy Buddha" but it was probably towards that end on the souvenir-spirituality spectrum.

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