The Weekend's TV: Florence Nightingale Sun, BBC1<br />Tony Robinson's Crime and Punishment, Sun, Channel 4

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

A lot became suddenly clearer when I saw that Florence Nightingale, Norman Stone's drama-documentary about the lady with the lamp, was a Faith & Values Media production. This is a company on a mission, rather literally. It actually states on its website that its mission is "to use the electronic media to enrich spiritual life and to build bridges of understanding among people of faith".

So the early-evening Sunday slot, the hagiographic narrative structure, that odd talky bit about religious doubts at the end, suddenly all made sense. This wasn't a common-or-garden BBC biopic, it was an inspirational tract, and one that will, no doubt, eventually be catalogued alongside Faith & Values Media's other recent productions, such as Patrick, a biopic of Saint Patrick, Joan of Arc: Child of War, Soldier of God, and Reluctant Saint: Francis of Assisi (oddly, although it describes itself as a multi-faith organisation, its current back list appears to be exclusively Christian in content).

Should this information really matter? Well, only in this respect. If you were to view Florence Nightingale as straightforward drama, I think you would conclude that it was a little unsatisfactory. Not for Stone the tart, human ambivalence with which Lytton Strachey opened his famous essay in Eminent Victorians: "In the real Miss Nightingale, there was more that was interesting than in the legendary one; there was also less that was agreeable." On the other hand, if we're to regard it as a Sunday-school life, a catalyst for group discussion and pious contemplation, you'd have to admit that it was a bit more lively than the usual church pamphlet. The critical moment in this regard was the bit where Roy Hudd suddenly reared up, face covered in slap and twisted into a melodramatic grimace, to introduce the first of the music-hall interludes that helped to tell the story, in the style of Oh! What a Lovely War. I particularly enjoyed the lively number that accompanied Florence's audience with the Queen, an occasion on which she had been warned to edit out the more distasteful details of Scutari life. "We don't want to hear about maggots/ We'd rather not learn about lice," sang Hudd. "Just make everything pretty/ And jolly and happy and nice."

Stone's drama delivered the basics perfectly well: Nightingale's disruptive sense of vocation, her dread of domestic confinement, the excellent political connections that allowed her to survive the hostility of Army generals in the Crimea, and her determination to press through reforms after the war. It also acknowledged that her religious certainties may have caused problems. In putting together her submission to the Royal Commission, she discovered the shocking fact that mortality rates in her hospital were actually higher than on the front line, despite all her efforts to improve hospital care. But it fell down in not drawing a sharp-enough distinction between the music-hall simplifications of its song-and-dance numbers and the notionally more realistic scenes of the drama. Palmerston, in particular, was a stock painted devil: silkily manipulative in his mutton-chop whiskers as he tried to prevent Nightingale from causing a political embarrassment. That, though, is the problem with morality plays: they need straightforward sinners to go with their saints.

Politics simmers intriguingly under the surface of Tony Robinson's Crime and Punishment, a characteristically Tiggerish archaeology of our legal system. "If we know where the law came from, we can keep an eye on where it's going," said Robinson, introducing the first of four programmes on the historical roots of our current laws. In other words, be very careful about 42-day detention because we've had hundreds of years to get accustomed to the rights of habeas corpus, and things weren't exactly pretty before those rights arrived. Nor was justice itself, for that matter, which was often arrived at by a crude tit-for-tat blood feud.

Robinson revealed that, when it came to law, the Romans had done virtually nothing for us, but that the roots of modern compensation culture could be found in the first codified laws under King Athelbert, which laid down specific payments for personal injury: if you chopped someone's foot off, you would have to pay him the modern equivalent of £5,000, but if you mangled his "kindling limb" – the Saxon euphemism for genitals – the price would be £60,000.

He also ran through the trial-by-ordeal process, which didn't draw quite as clear a distinction between judgment and punishment as a modern defendant might hope for. In the ordeal by hot water, the accused had to plunge his hand into a boiling cauldron to pluck out a stone. The arm was bound and if, after three days, it was found to have become infected, a guilty verdict was the result. Then, rather redundantly, you might feel, the culprit received a punishment on top of the scalding. It would have been nice to know if the innocent received any form of compensation, or even an apology from the court, but Robinson didn't say.