The Weekend's TV: Genius of Britain, Sun, Channel 4
Terry Pratchett's Going Postal, Sun, Sky1

A fine appliance of science

Philosophy will clip an angel's wings," said Keats. But Keats was wrong, said David Attenborough at the beginning of Genius of Britain – well, implicitly at least: "The world is full of wonders," he declared, "but they become more wonderful when science looks at them." Take that, Keats.

Yes, science might have emptied "the haunted air and gnomed mine", but it has replaced the ghosts and the gnomes with something better. Oddly, though, this robust and rational defence of science – part of a distinctly defensive overture to Channel 4's celebration of British scientific brilliance – came dressed in the rhetoric of magic and the supernatural. You'll know the kind of thing from countless television programmes: ethereal tinkling on the soundtrack and a lot of optical magic for the landscape shots, flaring the light into the otherworldly and the numinous. It's the standard shorthand for there being more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Tellingly it was pretty similar to the idiom used for the opening of Terry Pratchett's Going Postal, Sky's lavish adaptation of one of Pratchett's gleefully otherworldly Discworld novels.

I take it this was a clue to the defensiveness. "We want to set the record straight," Stephen Hawking said at the beginning, "and put science back on the map." It was news to me that it had ever been taken off, but what you sensed at work here was a backlash against a backlash – against a fundamentalist caricature of science as a drab failure of imagination. If you want awe and the marvellous, the style said, science can give it to you. Enlisted in the cause, as if to match up with the quintet of pioneering British scientists profiled in the programme, was a relay team of distinguished scientific presenters: Attenborough came out of the blocks with a little section on Christopher Wren's passion for astronomy, passed the baton to Richard Dawkins, who used his stretch to fill us in on Robert Hooke and early microscopy, before a clean handover to James Dyson, appropriately on hand to talk about Robert Boyle's experiments with an early vacuum pump.

It was full of fascinating detail, though I'm not convinced that all of their anecdotes will have successfully countered the prejudice that science privileges hard fact over morality and feeling. Wren, Attenborough told us, had scotched the widespread belief that the spleen was essential to life by tying down a spaniel, performing a crude splenectomy, and then sewing the wretched animal up again. The dog survived, astonishingly – but I think Wren's reputation with the dog-loving British public may have taken a bit of a knock. At least Newton used himself as a guinea pig, notoriously probing around behind his own eyeball with an ivory bodkin in order to explore the properties of light. Then again, Newton wasn't exactly a moral paragon either; it's said that one reason there are no surviving portraits of Robert Hooke is because Newton was so consumed by his rivalry with him that he had them all destroyed when he took over at the Royal Society. To weigh against that, of course, you have Principia Mathematica, which Jim Al-Khalili described as "the greatest book ever written in history" in another little dig at scriptural dogmatists of another kind.

The cosmology of Going Postal is perhaps best described as pre-Newtonian. The Earth is flat and rests on the back of three humungous elephants, which in turn rest on the back of a giant turtle. This, as Terry Pratchett devotees will know, is Discworld, an extensively chronicled alternative universe in which the knowing joke is one of the fundamental physical forces. Those who aren't Pratchett devotees might be pleasantly surprised by Going Postal, which is so nicely done that it makes a proselytising case for the author's distinctive imagination. Richard Coyle plays Moist von Lipwig, a con-man and fraudster who is saved from the gallows to bring a bit of healthy competition back to the communications industry in Ankh-Morpork. Charles Dance's Lord Vetinari invites him to revitalise the derelict postal system in order to give consumers an alternative to a kind of steampunk telegraphy system, run with monopolistic greed by the villainous Reacher Gilt.

Moist has no intention of doing any such thing, particularly since he soon learns that all his predecessors have died trying. But as he tries to raise enough funds to flee, he inadvertently invents postage stamps – and begins to be haunted by the consequences of his former frauds. He also has the problem of getting away from his probation officer, a giant golem called Mr Pump, who eventually brings him into contact with the love interest in the piece, a young woman who runs a golem rights consciousness-raising group. It looks terrific and is full of good jokes, including a running gag about Stanley, one of the junior postal clerks, who is an obsessive pin collector. In an attempt to make small talk with him, Moist mentions that he's seen Pins Monthly on the newsstands. "That rag is for hobbyists," hisses Stanley. "True pinheads only read Total Pins." There are appropriately scary villains, some lovely special effects, including a tsunami of undelivered letters that pursues Moist through the corridors of the old Post Office, and just enough real feeling to make you care about what happens next. One of the opening credits read "Mucked about by Terry Pratchett", but neither he, nor they, mucked it up.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

Arts and Entertainment
Tate Modern chief Chris Dercon, who will be leaving to run a Berlin theatre company
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Tasos: 'I rarely refuse an offer to be photographed'
arts + ents
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Girls on the verge of a nervous breakdown: Florence Pugh and Maisie Williams star in 'The Falling'
Film
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

  • Get to the point
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.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence