Someday perhaps, when passions have cooled, the true story of The Fifty Years War (ITAL) will be told. Because Norma Percy's television history of the long combat between Arab and Israeli in the Middle East must have involved feats of diplomacy and strategic sleight of hand not much less gripping than those it chronicles. To produce an account of such viciously contested events with the involvement of both Arab and Israeli television stations makes the existence of this series something of a miracle. It perhaps also explains an oddity about its contents - the absence of vituperation, or hatred or rage. Those on both sides confine themselves almost entirely to what happened at a particular moment and what they were thinking, and if they did seize the occasion of their interviews to lean a finger on the scales of history, it has been gently removed before transmission. Hard questions are missing too - Ariel Sharon and Yasser Arafat both take part, for example, and talk openly about many incidents. But the former doesn't contribute anything new to the section covering the Beirut massacres and the latter doesn't appear to have been pressed to explain why the PLO felt it necessary to attack schoolchildren in Northern Israel. The result can feel eerily controlled, a tightrope walk over a pit of recrimination, but what is secured by such compromises (and probably could not have been secured any other way) is often remarkable - a compelling sense of history emerging from impulse and contingency.

These virtues are fragile - and easily dissipated by casual viewing habits. The paradox is that these accounts grip tightly, but they can only do so if your attention grips first. They cannot be dipped into or watched with one eye on something else, because the fascination lies not in individual soundbites but in the way different memories build into a three-dimensional picture or the way in which reminiscences suddenly revive the inert matter of old newsreel. In last night's episode, library footage showed Zbig Brezinzki preparing to play chess with Menachem Begin at Camp David - then Brezinski recalled how, before they began, Begin seized his hand and told him that the last time he'd played was when he was arrested by the Nazis in Vilna in 1940. It wasn't true, and that revelation of Begin's gamesmanship coloured much that followed. The series is packed with such illuminating details and they are well worth any viewer's patience.

The South Bank Show's (ITV) controversial programme about body art (a.k.a. exhibitionistic self-mutilation) began with a health warning from Melvyn Bragg. In the event, though, I found the giggles outweighed the revulsion, there being something irresistibly comic about the way in which these people had converted an extreme leisure activity into cultural obligation. There was a lot of loose talk about how it was our duty to "deal with" the feelings of disquiet aroused by the sight of a man suspended by a pair of meathooks through his pectorals - as though it would be healthier to absorb such sights with breezy indifference. The comedy was amplified by the decision to use a chattering teletext to print out brief profiles of the artists involved. Ron Athey's CV included the information that he had formed a punk band called Premature Ejaculation and "never watches TV, to avoid pollution". Instead he goes on stage and slashes his forehead until the blood trickles from his eyebrows, or uses a colleague as a kind of bloody potato print.

Is it art? I'm not sure that it matters, since these people are going to do it anyway and they can usually find an audience of fellow enthusiasts to watch them. In fact the atmosphere at one of the performances filmed was strangely reminiscent of a gathering of Star Trek enthusiasts, awed by the fundamentalism of a fellow Trekkie. It was noticeable that only those without bolts felt it necessary to lean on the crutches of old master crucifixions and martyrdoms - a convenient pedigree of torment for the dubious spectator.

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