TV Programs Worth Watching Sun August 4 ~ Sat August 10
I have expressed previously in these pages my dissatisfaction with the analysis presented by Simon Schama in the series A History Of Britain, the final four episodes of which have now been finished and are being aired this month (SBS 7.30pm Sundays). Schama is far too fond of crediting historical developments to the personal whim or individual psychology of this that or the other "great man" (or woman). Apparently utterly ignorant of historical materialism, Schama has to weave elaborate hypotheses to explain historical events or movements that in reality express the growth and clash of class forces. This week's episode covers the English contribution to the intellectual and revolutionary fervour of the French Revolution, but not very deeply or satisfactorily. The deficiencies of Schama's approach are fully displayed the following week, in an episode dealing with the British Empire between 1830-1925. Under the astonishing title The Empire of Good Intentions, it attempts to contrast the harsh reality of British rule in countries such as Ireland and India ("blood, grief and broken promises") with "the noble ideals of Empire". Pardon? Noble ideals? Empire is entirely about making the wealthy ruling class even wealthier. What is noble about that? Once again, Schama is guilty of mistaking imperialism's propaganda for its reality, the shadow for the substance. Not a good fault in a historian. In the final episode in the series, Schama asks the daft question (for an historian), should history be celebrated or disowned? He answers it, "by focusing on the lives of two contrasting figures who have had a huge personal impact on Simon Schama — Winston Churchill and George Orwell". 'Nuff said, really. As to dispute what God may do is blasphemy, so it is sedition in subjects to dispute what a king may do in height of his power", James I told his first Parliament after he succeeded Elizabeth on the English throne. "I will not be content that my power be disputed on." In the 16th century, the rising bourgeoisie — the merchant and trading class that was also the backbone of Parliament — had worked in successful partnership with the Tudor monarchy to destroy the power of the Church and the nobility and created the preconditions for the development of a capitalist economy. At the beginning of the 17th century, under the Stuarts, the bourgeoisie began to find its further progress blocked by the monarchy, an essentially feudal institution. Even in the Church of England, efforts to allow more freedom for nonconformist views — Puritanism and Catholicism — were rejected by the new King, James I. It was a time of plots, conspiracies and changing political allegiances. At the beginning of the century the Catholics were repressed as enemies of the Crown. Within a decade or so, they became the monarchy's staunchest supporters, just as the bourgeoisie on the other hand came to realise that they could not go forward as the ally of the monarchy but only as its enemy. Not that they saw it in such straightforward terms. It was a period of "countless apparently unrelated dilemmas" which drove the people of the time to "decisions that in their totality constituted the forward movement of a whole class" (Morton: People's History of England). One incident of note, as a symptom of these dilemmas, was the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, which immortalised the name of Guy Fawkes, although he was not the chief plotter, as is shown in Gunpowder Treason And Plot (ABC 9:25pm Sunday). A dramatised documentary interspersed with comments by various historians and biographers, this strives to explain this Catholic terrorist conspiracy with no reference at all to the developing class forces in England. This prevents the program from being good history but does not prevent it from being good drama. And some of the conflicting forces are discernible in the program's consideration of alternative or overlapping conspiracies. Had the conspirators been successful they would have blown up the King, his family, his Ministers, the leaders of the Church, the senior aristocracy, and many others. It would have been the terrorist coup of all time. It was unlikely to have changed anything significantly. The movie A Pure Formality (Una Pura Formalit`/Une pure formaliti) (ABC 11:00pm Monday) is an Italian/French co-production from the director of Cinema Paradiso, Giuseppe Tornatore. Made in 1994, this one is far removed from Paradiso's warm nostalgia. This is a dark, claustrophobic crime thriller set mainly in a desolate police interrogation room. There's been a murder in the woods, and a country inspector (played by Polish film director Roman Polanski) interrogates a protesting suspect (Gerard Depardieu). The prisoner identifies himself as a famous writer — of whom the inspector is a fan — bringing about the first shift in their tense relationship as the long rainy night wears on. The music in the film is by the doyen of Italian film composers, Ennio Morricone. Great Military Blunders: Tin Soldiers (ABC 1:00pm Saturday) deals with that persistent propaganda line of the 20th Century, which some of the military seem to have actually believed, that new military technology would bring about "cleaner" wars and reduce casualties. This episode demonstrates that from the Battle of the Somme to the Gulf War, technology failed to deliver. Born And Bred (ABC 7:30pm Saturday) is so obvious an attempt to make another "Heartbeat" that the comparison is odious. Whatever happened to originality? TV series do tend to improve as they settle down, and Born And Bred better had, because the first episode was so predictable it was painful. It tended to bore as well, which does not bode well. The Apartheid regime in South Africa used state terrorism to retain political power. It was a fascist dictatorship. The Guguletu Seven (SBS 8.30pm Saturdays) is a two-part behind-the- scenes documentary that reveals the methods used by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to investigate the infamous early morning police ambush of seven young Guguletu men in March 1986. It's a harrowing account of police cover-ups, but its essential soft-centre is revealed by its director, who simply does not know what apartheid was really all about. "It is a story about how power corrupts", she says of the film.