TELEVISION / Letting off steam on the beaten track

THERE was a time when Great Railway Journeys (BBC 2) would have referred to 'train buffs from England with only one thing on their mind' in tones of jocular respect. They were the series' principal constituents, after all. But when the phrase occurred in Rian Malan's excursion across South Africa, it carried no such chummy approval, indeed it was followed by a nasal imitation of the characteristic drone of the Lesser Spotted Anorak.

It was further evidence that Railway Journeys has changed for the better over the years, from a programme with an unhealthy interest in rolling stock and bogie configurations to a format that allows its presenters to take an exploratory slice out of a country, a biopsy from which its health might be deduced. Trains are useful diagnostic devices, often cramming together the poor and the rich, the privileged and the powerless, with only a carriage door to separate them.

It was wise of Malan, a white South African who has spent his whole career writing about apartheid, to confess that his encounter with British steam enthusiasts was a collision of incompatible obsessions. Malan was at work here as an omen-spotter, keen to detect glimmers of light in the people and places he visited but more often being thrown into despondency by a news bulletin or an attitude. He was playing Journalist Agonistes here, hard-smoking, hard-drinking and on the road in search of meaning. As he left Cape Town, smoke from riots protesting at the assassination of the ANC leader Chris Hani was still clearing from the sky, to be replaced by the copious charcoal cumulus of a steam locomotive drawing rich tourists northwards. 'There was a whiff of Bosnia in the air,' Malan said with a melancholy air. 'There had to be some good news out there, some light, some hope.'

If you don't like your prose rich then some of this would have been hard to digest. South Africa was 'a huge heap of firewood teeming with incendiaries' and the black gunmen attacking isolated farms in the Drakensburgs were 'the dark ravens of apartheid coming home to roost'. The manner was melodramatic too, a touch of 'down these mean railroads a man must go' in the way Malan was filmed, bag in hand, at isolated stations. But it was never fatal and you never felt that he'd bent the journey to private ends. He ended his film in the Lost City, a dollars 300m extravaganza in Bophuthatswana constructed to look like the remains of a lost African civilisation.

It might have been constructed by a wealthy ironist as an expensive metaphor for South Africa's paradoxes and Malan had committed the sacrilege of travelling by road to include it. In fact it wasn't the most memorable image in the film - that honour went to an uneasy sequence in which Malan travelled third class with a Zulu friend in a carriage crowded with blacks. They had an argument about the ending of apartheid which simmered with real anger and when a bulb blew out in the corridor everyone flinched. That twitchy moment caught the mood best, of a nervous, apprehensive country listening for noises in the night.

'The Soviet Wives Affair' (C4) was a touching Secret History film about wartime lovers separated by Cold War diplomacy and the limitless malice of Stalin, for whom no trouble was too small. When British soldiers and diplomats married Soviet citizens they were immediately posted back home, for fear of security leaks. Stalin saw that the 15 brides who remained behind might be useful as a bargaining tool and refused to issue them with exit visas. In a display of Foreign Office logic that Jill Morrell would probably find familiar, a Moscow-based diplomat advised the Government that 'the repetition of ineffective protests tends to convey an impression of impotence' and the matter was shelved. Impressed by this display of British grit and resolution, Stalin had most of the wives arrested and sent to Siberian labour camps. Only one was ever reunited with her husband. It was a sad tale of the petty theft of people's happiness, told with an admirable simplicity.