The colossus known as `Rhodes'

We are never left in any doubt that Rhodes (BBC1, Sunday) is an epic. We know this, not just because the makers have provided us with a sandstorm, a cast of thousands and an entire frontier town manufactured for the cameras, but because incredibly loud, specially composed orchestral scores accompany virtually every scene and arise to fill any silence. The BBC's Rhodes is a man who cannot take a leak with-out the assistance of the Berlin Philharmonic.

Which is fair enough. To the question of whether or not Rhodes is a significant enough figure to carry a multi-million-pound, three- continent co-production, the answer is a definite yes. In his excellent book The Scramble for Africa, Thomas Pakenham uses the word "astonishing" three times in two pages to describe Rhodes. So the story was there to be made. But because Rhodes is also an immensely politically difficult subject for the modern sensibility, it was always going to be a risky endeavour.

And they carry it off - just. Young Rhodes has the right combination of enthusiasm, idealism, arrogance and egocentricity to sow the seeds of the later, monstrous man. Towards the end of the first episode, when he is accused by a fellow colonist of sentimentality, he replies, "Not sentimental, never sentimental. Practical." That practicality is most evident in his realisation of the potential of a monopoly in diamond production. It is rare for a major drama series to reveal an important truth about economics, but Rhodes reminded us that - for all the market rhetoric - many of the most successful entrepreneurs, from Cecil to Rupert, absolutely abhor competition.

In the case of Rhodes, this competition rode in in the shape of Barney Barnato (the excellent Ken Stott). Bespectacled, with dark wiry hair and an East End/Vilnius accent in which the word "schlemiel" appeared in sentence one, Barnato was only missing a volume of Lionel Blue's Greatest Thoughts, a yarmulka and a 20ft sign saying "I am a Jew", to ensure that the terminally stupid got the message.

It's this odd admixture of well-judged historicism and overblown characterisation that nearly unstuck the first episode altogether. Having successfully conjured up the neo-colonial chaos in which ruthless individuals like Rhodes could shape the policies of an entire empire, and having also laid the basis for a complex psychological profile of the man himself, it is passing strange that one device and one character should have nearly derailed the whole enterprise. Nevertheless, this is what Frances Barber's Princess Radziwill, and her role as flashback facilitator, almost do. In an accent picked up from the Czech version of 'Allo, 'Allo, she tells the older Rhodes that his grand plan for Africa "voz de tort of a loonatik". The viewer (who may not know that Radziwill was in reality the first stalker, responsible for hounding Rhodes to his grave) is left feeling that Rhodes's torts are not the most loonatik around by a long chalk.

If an important bit of British (and African) history is being reclaimed bravely in Rhodes, that is more than can be said for the massively disappointing People's Century (BBC1, Sunday), whose second tranche hit the screens with a programme about the Cold War. For all the vast sums spent upon splendid archive footage, or on seeking out the little girl who made a speech to Stalin and Mao in a Moscow theatre in the late Forties, this is a hugely unambitious series. Seeking to follow in the formatted footsteps of Jeremy Isaacs' Seventies classic, The World at War (commentary, eye- witness, library-film), People's Century has eschewed any historical theorising or explanations, for flat themed chronology.

The result was a CD-Rom-type soundbite history of Russian-American tension: four minutes on the Hungarian Revolution, four on the Korean War, three on McCarthyism, etc. One by one I ticked off the way-stations that I had written down before the show even began: the Elbe, Churchill's Iron Curtain Speech, the Berlin Airlift, and so on. They were all just shovelled in, without any real glimmer of understanding or analysis: history as told by news reporters.

What was needed here, at the point when the series was first conceived, was indeed a loonatik tort. Perhaps each programme should have been given to a historian (we have enough) to construct the story and significance of a particular theme. Then there might have been some intellectual grandeur to accompany the pictorial and budgetary investment.

People's Century is an expensive reminder that a progression of images is not enough - a story must be told. Perhaps Peter Pagnamenta, the executive producer, should have consulted Laurence Rees, editor of Timewatch (BBC2, Tuesday), whose History of a Mystery was a brilliant detective tale. Many readers will remember the decade-long fashion for Templar nonsense, which claimed the existence of a 1,000-year-old secret religious/military organisation, buried treasure and clues hidden in the geometry of Poussin paintings. Indeed two BBC history programmes in the Chronicle series (one in 1974, the other five years later) gave considerable support to the notion of the Priory of Sion, and named past grandmasters as Victor Hugo, Isaac Newton and Jean Cocteau. Twenty years later we might expect Tom Cruise, Stephen Hawking and Nick Hornby to have been added to that list.

Timewatch fooled us by beginning with two chaps who were setting out to prove that a particularly uninteresting hill in south-west France "may hold the clue to a great unsolved mystery". My heart sank even further upon learning that these two were an engineer and "a professional diver, with a passion for shooting old Winchester rifles". They beetled about drawing shapes on pictures and parchments, subtracting the year 1801 from 1876 and getting the exact angle on a shepherd's staff, finally deciding that Mont Cardoux must contain the answer.

And then Timewatch revealed, piece by careful piece, that it was all complete rubbish. An angular Frenchman turned out not to be descended from Dagobert II (last of the Merovingians), but from 16th-century walnut growers; the parchments upon which all the angles and cryptic clues had been based were the work of a dissolute Gauloise-cured Parisian aristo. They had sown the seeds, and loads of silly Englishmen had devoted their lives to the discovery of a non-existent mystery.

There was, at the end, a moment of supreme (and, I suspect, deliberate) irony. Literary editor Robert McCrum, filmed in front of the Holy Grail book which popularised the Templar hoax, said that it had all been "a parody of history. Alas," he went on, "this is the way history is going today." Except, of course, that 20 years ago one BBC programme had endorsed the parody, and this week another one comprehensively debunked it. Personally, I call that progress.

Another way to do history, of course, is retro-drama. We return to an age of innocence and order, when Britain was a happier, simpler place. In Heartbeat (ITV, Sunday) it is the mid-Sixties, when an original hit accompanied every trip anyone ever took by motor car. Step into a Ford Anglia, turn the key in a Corsair, open the boot of a Sunbeam, and you are catapulted into the charts circa 1966. It is a world of kind coppers, kind district nurses, kind (and toothsome) teachers and kind publicans. Even the villains are quite kind. The hero, PC Nick Rowan (played by Nick Berry - Rowan/Berry geddit?), is so impossibly fresh-faced (count the number of red-lipped, clear-eyed, Colgate-white smiles he bestows on the camera) that he makes newly baked bread look manky and unappetising. The only thing fresher is the schoolmarm in tight woollies, who is a dead ringer for his lost GP wife, and with whom well-scrubbed consummation in front of a log-fire is surely imminent. In their Dales sex is happy, bishops are celibate, England always wins the World Cup and Harold Wilson is always Prime Minister. No wonder that, every Sunday evening, so many of us want to join him in this other country.

But it does make you wonder whether - in 30 years - our own age won't be the location for nostalgic TV shows. Will we yearn for the bygone simplicity of crotch-clinging cycle shorts, Nike trainers, aerobic classes, Blockbuster video shops and health scares? Will our heroes go for healthy nights out to PVC fetish clubs, drop a tab and then rescue veal calves from villainous farmers? Or - as I suspect - will we just be watching archived repeats of Heartbeat?

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