The Weekend's TV: Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner? Sun, BBC4
Toughest Place to Be a Midwife, Sun, BBC2

A spot of character assassination

Sometimes you wonder what television would do without received opinions, so fond is it of the idea that it can heroically overturn them.

There were two instances last night – a revisionary history of Abraham Lincoln, which set out to revise a history nobody above the third grade would take seriously anyway, and a more personal exercise in illusion-shattering in Toughest Place to Be a Midwife, in which a guileless young woman called Suzanne travelled all the way to Liberia in the hope that one of the poorest countries on Earth would have some grounded wisdom to impart about more natural forms of childbirth. In the first case, the makers of the programme were self-consciously setting themselves up as the bearers of a hard truth. In the second, it naturally emerged from the collision between Suzanne's idealism and the appallingly basic maternity care available in Monrovia. But in both cases, the friction between what we'd like to think and what is actually true generated all the energy.

I shouldn't grumble too much about Abraham Lincoln: Saint or Sinner. I missed it on its first transmission and was glad to see that it got a swift repeat. The only problem was that its decision to tackle the hagiographic understanding of him as the Great Emancipator suffered a little from lack of argumentative stability. Like a tricycle with one wheel missing, the producers had to lean wildly to one side to keep the thing upright at all, since Lincoln's admirers in the programme (though realistic about his flaws) greatly outnumbered his detractors. What's more the detractors – with the exception of an elderly black man whose animus against Lincoln remained a little opaque – were conspicuously flakey, consisting mostly of a steamingly embittered group of Confederate Civil War enthusiasts, one of whom attempted to persuade us that Lincoln was America's equivalent of Milosevic or Stalin.

I suppose it may have come as news to some viewers that Lincoln wasn't perfect. It would certainly have surprised the primary school children whose lisping accounts of Lincoln's virtues were used to underwrite the suggestion that he was a plaster god. But anyone who's read even a popular biography of him would have been aware of the evolution of Lincoln's thought, from the time when he believed that the preservation of the Union was a far higher priority than the abolition of slavery, to the moment when he realised that only abolition could preserve the union. And, yes, Lincoln was "responsible" for the harshness of Union tactics against the South, because he was the commander in chief, though a more nuanced account of history might allow for the fact that even the greatest men share the responsibility for their actions with the cultures in which they live. Scratch from Lincoln's life the oratory, the wit, the intellect and the remarkable political ability to turn opponents into disciples and you would still be left with the spectacle of a politician prepared to change his mind, and who changed it with extraordinary consistency in the right direction. Saint or sinner? Neither, of course, but unquestionably closer to the former than the latter.

I would have thought that the toughest place to be a midwife right now was Benghazi or Tripoli. But for the purposes of BBC2's exercise in educational tourism it was a country where the violent chaos is in the recent past – Liberia. Per capita income is about a dollar a day and the capital city, Monrovia, has little running water and erratic electricity. These conditions are not famously compatible with excellent health care but Suzanne – an NHS midwife – harboured the hope that she might discover new things about traditional forms of childbirth. She got a shock when she turned up at Monrovia's Redemption Hospital, where patient-centred care is a luxury they can't afford. Indeed, they're so short of space that a mother recovering from a stillbirth may find herself feet away from one patient successfully delivering a child and another one undergoing an abortion.

Everywhere Suzanne turned she saw evidence that, far from being more authentically connected to the processes of birth, the local midwives were still employing methods that would be regarded here as insensitive at best, dangerous at worst. This wasn't a criticism of the midwives she encountered – dedicated women who worked for a pittance – but just the reality of a country that in totality could only boast around 100 doctors. And if Suzanne suspected that Liberia's metropolitan centre might have lost touch with an ancient tribal wisdom, which still survived in the rural areas, she found out different when she went out on an education visit to the traditional midwives in the villages. To prevent bleeding, they eagerly told her, you just have to get the patient to bite on a bit of coal, and if you want to delay childbirth for a while tie a rock on a string round the expectant mother's waist. Suzanne nodded politely, though she couldn't contain her feelings as easily when a young girl arrived at the hospital, dangerously ill after employing another of Liberia's "natural" remedies – a herbal abortifacient that eventually killed her.

Suzanne returned rightly impressed by the courage and the kindness of the women she'd worked with, but although they'd given her a model for matriarchal resilience and determination, the traffic of helpful information about childbirth was almost entirely one way.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
The new Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Jardin d'Acclimatation in Paris
architecture

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
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.

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album