The Fallen, BBC2<br/>My Family at War, BBC1<br/>Apparitions, BBC1<br/>Horizon: How Mad Are You? BBC2

Every family's grief has a different character and colour &ndash; this documentary gave dignity to them all
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The Independent Culture

It is sweet and fitting that television should try so hard to commemorate the war dead. This year there was an impressively wide array of programming, from the comfortingly predictable (ITV's Words of War went straight for Wilfred Owen) to the achingly live and pertinent. Morgan Matthews' extraordinary new documentary The Fallen attempted to roll-call each of the British servicemen and women who has died during the past seven years in Afghanistan and Iraq, which meant that even in the days running up to its broadcast yesterday, new names were being added in the edit.

It was a hulking megalith, three hours long, and yet it had the delicacy to pierce your heart repeatedly. Morgan Matthews is an extremely good listener, and here he managed to mix and compress a huge number of voices while allowing each one to retain its individual tone. "They edit me down to a few seconds after I've given them three hours!" laughed one grieving mother, a regular on news programmes. "I expect you'll do that too!" Not this time. The Fallen was the antidote to sound bites. It showed how every family's grief has a different colour and character, how many ingenious strategies the human mind deploys to cope with heartbreak. "People probably think it's sad but we still buy him a Christmas present every year," said one father. "We bought him an iPod with his name engraved on the back." Another bereaved father was filmed standing next to his car gazing at his numberplate – Y6 RMP. "It's perfect," he said, spelling it out for us. "Why did Six Royal Military Policemen have to die?" Another interred his son's ashes in a military drum. "He's with his things he loved, his drumstick and his cap and his medals. I suppose it goes back to the Egyptian thing: the Pharaohs were buried with their belongings, their best bits." You watched with tissues to hand.

There were problems with this film. It wasn't always clear which names corresponded with which interviewees, and it felt unfair that some of the deceased's lives were featured in depth while others were only names on the screen. Usually war memorials are either comprehensive and symbolic, or personalised and intimate. This attempted to be both at once, and in so doing it outreached itself – and probably most of us. Radio Times said it was "unmissable" but also provided absolution for busy viewers by recommending they "dip in". It would be a shame if this subtle and affecting piece of work were lost because it doesn't fit in any pre-existing mould.

My Family at War was much more straightforwardly effective, putting a Remembrance week gloss on the popular genealogical quest format – not so much Who Do You Think You Are? as Who Do You Think Died for You?. The result is a heartfelt history show, really very good indeed; the kind of thing you record out of a vague sense of duty but watch with mounting absorption. Dan Snow made some grim discoveries about the mistakes made by his great-grandfather General Snow. Kirsty Wark read her great-uncle's brave letters home with a wobbly chin. "I am in the pink," he wrote, days before the flu got him. And Rolf Harris followed through France in the footsteps of the Australian troops, particularly his father and uncle. All very moving – until Rolf wrapped up with a full-blown concert recital of "Two Little Boys". As the war heroes sent for a treat to Bayreuth allegedly cried, "We made it through war, death, pestilence – but now this is too much to take."

"Father, how do you know my leprosy was cured by God?" In Apparitions, a piece of high Catholic thriller camp, all the lines are like this. "You have a talent for exorcism. Use it." Corkers, every one. People are always crying tears of blood and muttering curses on Princess Diana. It's hilarious. And delivered with great deadpan style. Unless, that is, you choose not to have a sense humour about the show, in which case it seems disturbing and vaguely offensive.

It doesn't do to over-think Apparitions, and the same is true of Horizon: How Mad Are You?, a confused effort to discover if, under close observation, people tend to give away their psychiatric history. As you may have inferred, this is a tactful way of saying that the show asks if you can spot a nutter. For all the show's delicacy, it's unmistakable: cruelty and the shadow of bedlam lurk under the patina of scientific enquiry like a body beneath ice.

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