They weren't exactly tackling the little jobs on BBC2 this weekend.
On Saturday, Howard Goodall's Story of Music took on nothing less than the entire history of music, from bone flutes to rap, and on Sunday, Brian Cox trumped that large ambition with an even bigger ask. "What Is Life?" was the subtitle of the first episode of his new series, Wonders of Life, a cosmically grandiose question that seemed unlikely to be wrapped up in just an hour of screen time. Both presenters faced the problem of condensing highly technical material into something absorbable by the general viewer. And each took a very different approach.
Howard Goodall opted for jocularity and a strenuously advertised lack of snootiness. The opening sequence showed him conducting an orchestral version of "Poker Face", which segued into footage of Lady Gaga performing the song. Then you got a shot of Mozart on a jukebox and the promise that "there'll be no fancy jargon nor misleading labels". Since his examples of "fancy jargon" included the words "baroque" and "nationalism", it looked as if things were going to be kept very, very simple indeed, but happily, having got this soothing reassurance out of the way, Goodall completely ignored it. Happily, because terminology and technical names are only a problem if you assume that everyone is already familiar with them.
Goodall didn't – explaining unison chant, major and minor thirds and the development of the triad in ways that would have been no huge revelation to anyone actually able to play an instrument, but quite instructive to those who just like listening to them. The filming style is appealingly pared down (Goodall presents several sequences from inside a sculptural treble clef) and the musical illustrations rather beautiful. But more sophisticated viewers may have quibbles about two things. The first is the Eurocentricity of Goodall's approach, which consigned the Islamic instruments inherited by the West to a passing footnote. The second is the effortful demotic in which a lot of the script is couched. I'm just not sure that calling Pérotin "a bloke from Paris" is going to win over dogged Lady Gaga fans to 13th-century polyphony. And it won't half grate on those who already love it.
Brian Cox does by and large avoid technical language, but then he has little alternative. The best definition of energy, he explained at one point, would be "the length of a space/time four vector in the time dimension... but that's not very enlightening, I grant you." His principal method of seduction is a calm wonder at the machinery of the universe and a genuine zeal for explanation. His subject in Wonders of Life is the point where physics fades into metaphysics – the origins of life and its ultimate prospects – and he approaches it with an unmistakably missionary fervour, if that isn't an inappropriate word for so squarely secular a series. "You don't need some mystical flames to animate these small machines," he said, watching dragonflies flit above a pond. What you need is batteries. Or at least their biological equivalents, which are proton gradients.
One mark of how natural a broadcaster Cox is is that it's very difficult to tell the difference between remarks he addresses to the film crew and the scripted lines he addresses to us. Another is that they can leave his very occasional flubs in the final edit and it only adds to the charm of thing, as when he attempted to extract DNA from his own saliva but missed the test tube at first spit. The long-term news from physics isn't good, incidentally. "The universe is falling to bits, it is tending to disorder," Cox said, explaining the baleful implications of the second law of thermodynamics. We have a while though, and in the interim life can be wonderfully engrossing – not least that temporary nexus of energy we know as Brian Cox.
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