The Weekend's Television: Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution, Sat, BBC2
Revelations: Commando Chaplains, Sun, Channel 4

Perfectly executed

Start getting nervous when the euphemisms arrive, but run like hell when they get to the oxymorons.

It wasn't a good sign when Robespierre and his colleagues formed the Committee of Public Safety in 1793, with revolutionary France besieged on all sides by imperial arms bent on the punishment of regicide. A shrewd student of history (and not just French revolutionary history) might have wondered whether the safety of the public was really going to be advanced by this organisation. But by the time Robespierre was saying "Forgiveness is barbarity, tolerance is atrocity" even the dimmest sans-culotte should have noticed that something was up. When they tell you that black is white – and that suggesting otherwise is treason – you know you're in trouble.

Terror! Robespierre and the French Revolution pretty much confined itself to the journey between those two points, from the establishment of the Committee of Public Safety to the moment when Robespierre himself, jaw shattered by a musket ball, was slid into the lethal cure-all of the guillotine. It took you from the limitless euphoria of revolution ("Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive") to the nauseating paranoia that followed, as Robespierre and his colleagues came to believe that the new state would have to be baptised in blood. And, just to drive home the fact that the embers of this conflagration are not yet cold, Mark Hayhurst, who wrote and produced the programme, had arranged to incorporate a violent combat into the programme itself, between the historian Simon Schama (speaking for Enlightenment humanitarianism) and the Marxist psychoanalyst Slavoj Zizek (speaking for philosophical provocation).

He enjoys goading people, does Slavoj, rubbing his nose excitedly as he delivers another affront to liberal consensus in his mangled Slavic accent ("Virtue without terror ish impotent... terror without virtue ish blind, no?"). And, fortunately for the programme, Simon Schama was pretty goadable. Indeed, there were moments here when you felt it was a good thing the two men had been interviewed on separate occasions. Slavoj would insist on the necessity – the beauty even – of Robespierre's cruelty and then you would cut to Schama, seething with fury, as angry as if the tumbrils were still rolling across the channel. Occasionally, other people got a look in too; most effectively the novelist Hilary Mantel, who wrote a fine novel about Robespierre, and who here observed the almost dreamlike acceleration of the terror with a dispassionate, wondering eye.

There were actors too – not always a happy addition to a history programme that already has a cast of passionate and well-informed contributors, but pretty successful here because of the claustrophobia of the setting, a single room in which the committee argues about what direction the revolution should take. As always in these things I hankered after an on-screen symbol – to announce the moment at which you'd passed from authentic speech to the restorer's gouache that fills in the gaps. Did Collot d'Herbois, ultimately one of the most brutal members of the committee, really say "Food must be hunted out of the barns with bayonets... that is the most efficient form of agriculture we have", or was Hayhurst putting words into his mouth? And when Robespierre defends the universal paranoia that the Terror has ushered in with the words "Suspicion is a superb thing... it is to liberty what jealousy is to love", was this a genuine aphorism or a pastiche one?

To my mind, Schama easily had the best of it in the head to head with Zizek, hindsight favouring his moral indignation at the casualness with which quite ordinary men transformed themselves into mass murderers. I'm not sure that Slavoj did his cause much good with a muddled metaphor, which appeared to compare a bloodless revolution with decaffeinated coffee, as if indiscriminate brutality was what you need to give social change a bit of zip. And when he robustly defended Robespierre's argument that fear of denunciation was tantamount to an admission of guilt it dawned on you that his arguments would have been just as valid if applied to Saddam Hussein, rather than a provincial lawyer with a commitment to egalitarian utopia. Schama, meanwhile, revealed that even the most liberal mind can contain a little bloodlust: "I would love to have been there," he said of the moment when the Convention turned on Robespierre and the Incorruptible's fate was sealed.

Revelations – Channel 4's intriguing series of religious documentaries – accompanied two Royal Marine chaplains on duty in Afghanistan. Judging from the footage here, a chaplain in a war-zone is a bit like a vicar in a pub. You want them there at moments of crisis, but having them hang around being matey when you're trying to relax between fire-fights puts a distinct dampener on things. The programme was oddly light on the theological contradictions of being a Christian in uniform, but for a passing moment when one of the chaplains seemed to acknowledge that an army of true believers wouldn't be very good at winning wars.

Arts and Entertainment
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project