Last night's viewing - A History of Syria with Dan Snow, BBC2; America's Gun Addiction – Panorama, BBC1; Broadchurch, ITV1


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The Independent Culture

"If you want to understand what's happening in Syria and this region at the moment," said Dan Snow, "there's only one place to start... the past." Do we want to understand, though? Really? Of course, we absolutely know we should – a grasp of intractable sectarian conflicts being a kind of secular obligation. In fact, it's quite likely that a fair proportion of those watching A History of Syria with Dan Snow had already gone through the ritual once already, in one way or another.

I know it isn't the first time I've been taken through the historic origins of the split between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, though had you asked me five minutes before watching the programme who'd done what to whom back in the fourth century, I'm ashamed to say I wouldn't have been able to tell you.

Anyway, last night's programme was both a useful refresher on the ancient roots of the current conflict in Syria, and a rather depressing reminder of just how durable some enmities are. Snow's film included footage of a Lebanese Sunni cleric spouting invective against Alawites, not Muslims at all in his book and thus, presumably, eminently slaughterable. A lot were killed back in the 14th century by their neighbours, and Alawite memory of that massacre still informs their reactions to what's happening today.

Which means, of course, that Sunnis occasionally have their prejudices reinforced. In fact, it occurred to you more than once watching the film that while it might be a good idea for us to understand the history of this region, a collective bout of historical amnesia would be a far better prescription for those actually living there.

Snow's film was a slightly odd affair, a bit like a country-house documentary filmed in a burning building. Every now and then, he mentioned the smell of smoke, as it were, with a reference to the sound of distant shellfire, or a delivery that sounded tactically sotto voce. But it was often not easy to say exactly where he was and under what auspices. He had been smuggled into an anti-Assad suburb of Damascus and he talked to a unit of the Free Syrian Army at one point, but this was a history programme not war reporting.

It was just that it was a history programme in which the rival experts, in some cases at least, were on opposite sides of a war. The British didn't get off scot-free incidentally, since our betrayal of postwar promises to the Arab nationalists who fought with T E Lawrence contributed to the dismemberment of Syria by the French colonialists. Snow ended by reminding us that Syria had enjoyed periods of peace before and might again, but even he didn't sound very persuaded by what he was saying.

Radio Times warns us that because Panorama reacts to news "its subject matter may change". America's Gun Addiction, Hilary Andersson's report on the aftermath of the Newtown massacre had already been postponed once and I can't help hoping that it happened again because it was infuriating, spending at least half of its length on a prurient account of the killing (what can we conceivably learn from blurry video footage of the killer when he was four years old?) and adding little new to our knowledge of the issue in the other half. A sense of history is a problem here too: "Guns founded America," said one pro-gun contributor. "They didn't do it on bows and arrows." It's hard to know where to start with a justification that dim-witted, but it would have been nice if Panorama had at least tried.

The plot thickened in Broadchurch, which in one respect at least meant "got much stupider". A psychic has turned up, treated as a nuisance by all present but eerily hitting home with a remark he makes to David Tennant's troubled detective. A psychic? Please. You're better than this.