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
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Actor and director Zach Braff

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
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.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week