The Weekend's TV: City Beneath the Waves: Pavlopetri, Sun, BBC2 / Fry's Planet Word, Sun, BBC2

Trip back in time goes swimmingly

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Obviously, everyone on the planet was watching The X Factor last night. That or Antiques Roadshow. They are, incidentally, virtually the same programme: it is, in my experience, entirely possible to tune into one and spend a good 15 minutes under the delusion that you are watching the other, especially while Louis' oldies ("The Overs") are still in the game, which they still are, this weekend marking only the first in the marathon stretch of live shows that will see us occupied until Christmas. They tend to be the first voted out, the olds – them or "the Groups" – though this year they've got Tulisa, so I reckon they'll stay. Really, when you think about it, The X Factor missed a trick not signing up Fiona Bruce to mentor.

Anyway, for those (three? four?) of you who weren't gripped to the ruminations of Barlow et al, there was City Beneath the Waves: Pavlopetri. And very good it was, too, if underwater archaeology is your thing. It's not, I should say, mine, which makes the programme rather hard to review since I was literally propping up my eyelids at the merest thought of watching Professor Jon Henderson and his hunky team from Australia (he's not from Australia, he's from Scotland) dust off a few stones on the sea floor.

But, like so many things in life, when you dread them, they usually turn out to be OK. And it was OK. More than OK, to be honest. X Factor-loving philistine though I am, even I can recognise the inherent amazingness of heading out for a swim and discovering a city that was built more than 5,000 years ago. Which is more or less what oceanographer Nic Flemming did, only he was in a boat and vaguely looking, so it's not completely stumbling. He returned a year later with a bunch of Cambridge students and began work uncovering what little we know about the city.

Now Henderson and his Australians are here. Their task was to use the latest technology – 3D mapping devices, robotic missiles, real-time photo re-creation (this, I'm afraid, is where my eyes glaze over) – to get a grasp of what life was like for Pavlopetri-dwellers back in the day. Using artefacts collected from the sea floor, they managed to piece together a picture of a remarkably complex society, one in which people were buried in ceremonial tombs, imports and exports were closely monitored, and fashions were copied from the rich and famous. One ceramic urn was virtually identical to the style favoured by the sophisticates of nearby Crete. Theirs would come in metals and other expensive materials, but over in Pavlopetri it was plain old ceramic. "It's like buying a cheap knock-off of a designer bag," said Henderson. That, I think, was my favourite fact.

If City Beneath the Waves: Pavlopetri was a struggle, I positively sailed through Fry's Planet Word. It was, I think, the best episode yet: with slang and swearwords on the menu, it included the rather delightful sight of Stephen Fry, elbow-deep in a tank of water, chanting the word "fuck" in a state of frenzied distress. The point of the experiment was to show how swearing helps in stress management; chanting "functional", he could only keep his hand in for a fraction of a time. When Brian Blessed gave it a go ("bollocks", this time, versus "wooden"), the disparity diminished: Blessed's a frequent swearer, so the taboo of the word was that much smaller, and its pain-reducing properties that much less.

It wasn't just straightforward profanity that got a look in (though there were some brilliant bits involving Jess, who has Tourette's, meaning she yelps out "biscuit", "Happy Christmas", and "fuck" at regular intervals, as well as an interview with The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci about the trade-offs in getting the BBC to broadcast Malcom Tucker's florid speeches: three C-words in exchange for five Fs and so on). Over in Turkana, East Africa, Fry asked some local tribes people what the worst insults they could throw at one another would be. "You have the penis of a donkey," rated pretty high.

Curiously, swear words and slang surrounding sex have become gradually less and less offensive. Likewise, the human body – think of piss, for instance. Anyone can say it! Piss, piss, piss. Others, though, have become more taboo – those regarding race and sexuality. Stephen K Amos was very interesting on the perceived double standard that dictates that it's OK for black people – comedians, rappers – to deploy the N-word in conversation, but not for white people, even without racist intent. It's not a double standard, was the overall conclusion. Which seems fair enough to me.