Nature&#8217;s Great Events, BBC1<br>Mistresses, BBC1<br>The Victorians, BBC1

Survival of the fittest, fastest and richest
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The Independent Culture

He was grouchy and dark; she was sleek and pink. Drawn together by biological destiny, they met halfway up a river in Alaska where, in graceful slow motion, she leapt straight into his mouth. It was love at, erm, first bite. The story of the salmon and the bear was given a full hour in Nature’s Great Events. Too often wildlife documentaries are hurriedly didactic, but this one could have been devised by Patricia Highsmith.

There was a wonderfully slow build-up to their fatal rendezvous. The killers paced, and watched, and waited. The victims hurried to them through the waters of the world, directed by tiny copper filaments in their brains whose action, as scientists have recently discovered, is compass-like. Willingly they came, all types of salmon – chinook, pink, chum, sockeye, smoked – while the predators browsed the icy waters for them, edging silently round each other to get their paws in, a scene reminiscent of the frozen fish aisle at Sainsbury’s. There was gorgeous photography from every angle: even the salmon’s-eye view up through the water of its jowly beloved, tossing his wet-look hair. The only element of the thriller missing was retribution. No bears left the scene in handcuffs. Nature was heard laughing in the babbling stream.

The Mistresses have unerring instincts that lead them to awful men. Copper in their brains, probably – implanted by slightly desperate scriptwriters who have torn up the last series’ plotlines and started over again. The part-time lesbian is now getting married; the 9/11 widow is making cakes semi-professionally; the devious doctor has started over with a younger man and the one who wanted a baby goes cruising at night. Helpfully, the actresses are still the same, a charismatic quartet who are nevertheless defeated by the dreadful directorial longueurs. Close-ups are stretched so far that you can practically hear their fibres fraying. This isn’t Wim Wenders. It’s essentially pap, so spare us the long close-ups that neither the performances (doing too much) nor the script (doing too little) can sustain.

Jeremy Paxman’s The Victorians is about art, but not as we know it: art before the deluge, the refinement, Conceptualism and cant; art before photography came along and set its tail on fire. The paintings Paxman shows us – noble labourers, rosy-cheeked children – are the pariahs of modern taste. “These aren’t fashionable,” said Paxman at the beginning, in that customary tone of his that says so get over it. We have been trained to jump on chairs squealing at the sight of these canvases, so to see them now on television, examined briskly but respectfully for their social-historical testimonies, is weirdly thrilling. There is a sense of cultural reconciliation, an aesthetic truce being drawn.

The first episode focused on depictions of the city – easing us into Victoriana gently, as the ones of weepy families and kittens will be distinctly harder for us to stomach. It included illuminating background material: one former iron smelter, still wearing his cloth cap, commented on the veracity of the clean faces in James Sharples’ painting of a forge: “We would sweat so much we’d wipe ’em clean.” Optimistic contemporary illustrations of smiling workhouse inmates were contrasted with the draughtier realities – Paxman himself sat down to a bowl of slop, asking in his inimitable interrogative tone, “What is gruel?” Visions of him asking Lord Shaftesbury the same question 15 times came to mind. He also visited the washrooms of Manchester Town Hall, revealing the marble-topped grandeur of Victorian civic ambition. This once-noble public space was now – and this was an irony Paxman appeared to relish – the fitting room for imaginative lingerie firm Agent Provocateur.

The noble Victorians came off well beside the shabby self-doubting present. Their magnificent provisions for future generations are, as Paxman has justly calculated, inspiring in the hand-to-mouth frenzy of the present. On balance the programme had too much welcome to England-style “heritage”, too many “look – a town hall!” sequences when it would have been better to have longer biographies of the artists such as William Powell Frith and Ford Madox Brown. And for a final quibble: the horrid title sequence – a virtual art gallery infested with CGI foliage – could have appealed only to a PlayStation-addicted android. But then again, if it taught you anything, this conspectus of the glories of unfashionable art, it was to have a little aesthetic humility.

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