The Weekend's Television: The Incredible Human Journey, Sun, BBC2
The Birth of British Music, Sat, BBC2
Bone collector trips up
Monday 11 May 2009
For those of us of a certain age, the phrase the Brotherhood of Man immediately brings to mind the Abba-esque British group who won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1976 with their song "Save Your Kisses for Me".
Indeed, that jolly number, which stayed at No 1 for six weeks and went platinum, usually overstays its welcome in the mind. There, I've done it for you now, haven't I? For others the Brotherhood of Man refers to a Christian or socialist ideal. However, for Dr Alice Roberts, presenting the first part of her anthropological history of mankind, The Incredible Human Journey, it is, in fact, perfectly credible and a literal truth.
We are all related, which perhaps we knew, but, more specifically, everyone who is not from Africa may well be descended from a small tribe of a few hundred souls who legged it out of Africa about 100,000 years ago. The global village is an even more incestuous place than it seems. Maybe that's why we're interested in the personal trivia that fills so much of the media. So, your curiosity about Sir Paul McCartney, Jordan, Rolf Harris, Sir Alan Sugar, Madonna, Paul Daniels, whoever, is motivated by familial loyalty rather than prurience. Which is comforting.
Dr Alice is one of those presenters who makes her way through her shows by asking questions, which makes things a bit irritating. I also wondered from time to time why I ought to be taking any notice of what she had to say. After all, when the art historian Lord Clark made his monumental series on Western civilisation in 1969, his credentials were well established.
Dr Robert Winstone's shows gain authority because of his well known pioneering work. Dr David Starkey knows what he's on about when he's talking Tudor. But Dr Alice Roberts? Never heard of her. She told us at the start of her show that she was a doctor and anthropologist, to which I thought, "So what?" From her Wikipedia entry I see she is an academic at the University of Bristol. I think the main reason we're supposed to pay attention to her is that she's pretty. Pretty audacious, I should say.
So perhaps, following her technique, I might ask how she went about finding out where we came from. Well, it looked like someone spent a vast amount of cash getting her round the world, though I notice it was some sort of co-production with French TV, which may have kept the costs down for the licence payer.
She did get about quite a bit. Her account of how our distant antecedents managed to get out of sub-Sahara Africa, effectively an island bounded by ocean and desert, was admittedly a fascinating one. Adding together the latest pieces of evidence from climate-change experts, archaeologists and geneticists, it seems that there were brief windows of opportunity when the Sahara turned lush and the Arabian peninsula was tantalisingly close to Africa, its freshwater streams and oases almost visible from the coast. Thus, our ancestors might have made the journey using primitive boats and by foot.
In Alice's case, the return journey back to the cradle of mankind was made by jumbo jet, small propeller plane, Toyota Land Cruiser and even a Mini Convertible. For me, archaeologists ought to be roughing things in the mud and sand, not driving round having fun, which is what Alice seemed to be doing for far too much of time.
Some of it looked a bit unnecessary. As she herself said, discovery of the oldest human remains, 200,000 years old, in the Great Rift Valley was made 40 years ago. She didn't have to go back there with a copy of the skull they found then, as if she'd just dug it up. There were things I learned form Dr Alice during her show, but not enough to keep me alert for a whole hour. It may not be long in geological time, but it felt like an eternity in front of the screen. Sorry, sis.
Unlike Dr Alice, Charles Hazelwood put his qualifications as a pundit-presenter on screen. The first show in his series on The Birth of British Music, on Henry Purcell, saw him conducting his very own orchestra through various classical pieces by the earliest truly British musician. I was surprised to see that a programme of this quality was being screened on BBC2 rather than one of the arts-ghetto channels, because that was traditionally what BBC2 is for: to educate philistines like me.
I'm ashamed to say the only Purcell piece I recognised immediately will always for me be John Major's 1992 general election theme tune, but I discovered it was incidental music composed for the restoration play Abdelazar. I also had no idea, or had forgotten, that some of the immensely moving music played during the Cenotaph ceremony is by Purcell. Most refreshingly, Purcell was also responsible for some bawdy drinking songs.
By the end of Hazlewood's elegantly scripted portrait of Purcell, I felt quite proud to be related, at least in the Dr Alice sense, to the pair of them.
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