Last night's viewing - This World: Interviews Before Execution, BBC2; China: Triumph and Turmoil, Channel 4

 

Like any television presenter, Ding Yu takes a professional interest in how she's going to appear on screen. Early in This World: Interviews Before Execution, she could be seen sending a runner off to fetch her a purple chair that would go better with the blouse she was wearing. But she presumably hadn't thought at all about how she might appear on British screens, and so she was casually unguarded as she talked about the unlikely scheduling hit that she developed and fronts. The pitch is simple: Ding interviews death row inmates just weeks, days or, even, in some cases, minutes before their sentences are carried out. The show, a queasy mix of true crime and ostentatious moralising, is a big hit in Henan province. And nobody – not even the criminals themselves – appears to have questioned whether it might just be in bad taste.

Ding herself clearly believes that she's carrying out an important social duty at some personal risk. "I have too much rubbish in my heart," she said tearfully, explaining the toll her job takes on her. But she also believes that the sight of the condemned, hunched and miserable as she presses them on the details of their crimes, will have a powerful deterrent effect. She believes too (with some justification, it has to be said) that she's doing the prisoners themselves a favour. They have to agree to be interviewed and while you can't rule out coercion most of them seem almost relieved to be addressed as human, and offered the opportunity to express remorse.

Which didn't do a lot to put your jaw back in place as you watched the show itself. Ding is pretty good at digging a knuckle into a man's tenderest spot and doesn't hesitate to do it: "Anything to say to your daughter?" she asked one wretched man, who'd killed his ex-wife and burned down the house, "You can tell her and we will relay it." More disturbingly, she's also allowed to film the final meeting between condemned prisoners and their relatives, hovering for the tears and the misery of people who didn't commit the crime but can't avoid a share of the punishment. And most disturbingly of all, she seemed to have colluded in springing a mother-and-child reunion on a female prisoner who hadn't seen her daughter since she was convicted. The girl herself believed that she was the natural daughter of her mother's sister-in-law, a belief that can't easily have survived this encounter.

Two caveats on any casually superior dismissal of Chinese television ethics though. The first is that later this month, Channel 4 will screen Death Row Stories, a series of interviews between the director Werner Herzog and American prisoners sentenced to death that will almost certainly be received as a serious sociological endeavour while feeding very similar appetites that make Chinese viewers tune in every week. And the second is that Interviews Before Execution carried within it a fascinating hint that attitudes to the death penalty are shifting in China at a government level. It ended with an interview with a senior judge, expressing the view that the punishment should one day be abolished. She wouldn't have done that without checking first.

Is there anybody who can look quite as pleased with himself as Niall Ferguson? He is prodigiously self-satisfied in China: Triumph and Turmoil, the first of a three-part series about China's journey to superpower status, which began with a lightning history lesson, from first emperor to Hu Jintao. The content is fascinating and timely but the delivery is infuriating – oddly confiding and condescending by turns. Two caveats here too. Does Ferguson read Chinese, or is he just pretending? And why did he make such heavy weather about understanding the old civil service exam ordeal of the Eight Legged Essay? I looked it up on Wikipedia and it's just an elaborate template.

Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Jenny Lee may have left, but Miranda Hart and the rest of the midwives deliver the goods

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all