Last night's viewing: Marianne Faithfull unearths Nazi-era intrigue in Who Do You Think You Are?


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

OK, so Marianne Faithfull was once a convent girl who became a 1960s wild child, had a baby with an art dealer and then a four-year relationship with Mick Jagger before becoming a homeless heroin addict and roaming the streets of London like a latter-day Ophelia. This generous quota of melodrama and heartbreak in early life all sounded a bit tame, though, compared to what her mother and maternal grandparents went through during the Second World War.

Who Do You Think You Are? unearthed so much Nazi-era intrigue that this hour rivalled the Hitler "in colour" documentary aired earlier in the week, at least for its unravelling of secret history. "Astonishing", Faithfull kept saying, as each new kernel was unearthed, though she gave away little emotion other than the occasional surprise and a wry knowingness ("I knew it," she exclaimed, when it turned out that her Austrian mother had exaggerated her noble lineage).

The Austrian side of her family tree experienced some astonishing acts of bravery, tragedy and struggle. And nobility, too – in both senses of the word. Her half-Jewish mother, Eva von Sacher-Masoch (or Baroness Erisso), had been a Weimar-era dancer in Berlin's heyday, and then got in with a group of avant garde performers as Nazi tensions built in Germany, forcing her to return to Austria.

Her grandfather, who had aristocratic roots dating back to the Habsburg empire, married a Jewish woman – Faithfull's grandmother – joined the anti-Nazi resistance movement in Austria at the height of the war, and ended up being arrested and hung by his hands in torture chambers at the age of 60. His wife, who had helped him in these highly dangerous covert activities and who had come to feel the "guilt" of being Jewish, ended up being raped by the Red Army soldiers who liberated the country. So did Faithfull's mother.

Faithfull already knew some of this and said that the rape had a devastating effect not only on her married life (she separated from her husband, Marianne's father, after six years, and drank heavily after that) but on Marianne too. "She hated men and passed it on to me," she said, shortly after talking about leaving Jagger. It was a quietly startling moment, more so when she added that it was only when she hit 50 that she was able to be intimate with a partner without being drunk or on drugs.

The only omission in this investigation was the silence around her paternal side. Her father, Major Robert Glynn Faithfull, was in the British Army. That's all we found out about him. But it was revelation enough for Faithfull. Facts and truth is what she had wanted, and got. "The family is the ground you stand on. The ground had been put back. Thank you."

Revelation still more rooted in fact came from Brian Cox in Science Britannica. Cox departed from his usual comfort zone of pure physics, with all its splitting atoms and what-not, to enter discursive terrain on the morality of science. He kicked off with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein – good ploy for reeling in science-phobes, Brian.

Shelley's doctor was likened to Dr Giovanni Aldini, who tried to bring a corpse back to life using electricity, and was forced to flee Britain for his "dangerous" morality. Cox's point was that much of new science has been seen as the "dark arts". Well, it's not exactly a new idea and the debate runs in the arts too, from Frankenstein to Bertolt Brecht's Galileo, but Cox's inquiry was focused. "Images of mad scientists have haunted British science. I want to find out why."

He took in fears around GM from within the scientific community in the 1970s to nuclear power and animal experimentation. A provocative – and understandable – hour, though Cox seemed to be making a subtle ethical equivalence between the experiments that doctors of old conducted on corpses to modern scientists on animals.