The Guardian August 7, 2002


TV Programs Worth Watching Sun August 11 Sat August 17

George Bernard Shaw was one of the founders of the Fabian Society, 
socialists who believed that education and reforms could bring about a 
revolutionary transformation of society in the interests of working 
people.

In his plays, Shaw pilloried the ruling class, especially their hypocrisy 
and double standards, the selfishness and snobbery inherent in bourgeois 
thinking. He particularly railed against the stultifying conformity and 
elevation of mediocrity in "middle class morality".

When Alfred Doolittle, a carefree, amoral dustman in Shaw's play 
Pygmalion, is left an annuity, he is elevated from the ranks of the 
working class into the middle class. With his new-found respectability come 
responsibilities: for instance, his "old woman" insists that they get 
married at last.

"I've been delivered into the hands of middle class morality", he moans to 
Professor Henry Higgins, the man he holds responsible for placing him under 
these obligations to ruling class values.

In Pygmalion, a delightful play to read (with the added benefit in 
written form of Shaw's preface and afterword), Shaw put the view that if a 
guttersnipe were scrubbed up, well dressed and above all taught to speak 
with a posh accent, he or she would be automatically accepted into so-
called "society". Radical ideas for the Edwardian era.

He went further, letting his heroine swear on stage and, almost as 
shocking, turn down the hero Professor Higgins in favour of the lightweight 
supporting character Freddie Aynsford-Hill. As Shaw puts it, she rejects a 
lifetime of fetching Professor Higgins' slippers in favour of a lifetime of 
Freddie fetching hers.

Calculating, even cynical, and certainly not very romantic. But it was the 
logical outcome of Higgins' liberating education of Eliza. The ending is in 
fact central to Shaw's theme throughout the play.

Nevertheless, when they made the film of it in 1938 and later the musical 
My Fair Lady, box office considerations made them change the ending 
so that Eliza would choose to go on fetching Higgins' slippers.

My Fair Lady is a travesty of Shaw's great play. The treatment of 
Alfred Doolittle in particular  and the theme of middle class morality in 
general  shows how little the producers knew or cared about Shaw's ideas 
or views.

Anyway, for those of you who think it's a "loverly" musical, the ABC has a 
BBC program, My Fair Lady: Wouldn't It Be Loverly?, the story behind the 
creation of the musical play (ABC 2:50pm Sunday).

The Channel 5 documentary Catherine The Great (ABC 9:25pm Sunday) 
spends a lot of time making it clear that Catherine the Great's popular 
reputation for having scores or even hundreds of lovers was untrue. So far 
so good.

Instead it talks about her role as a female monarch, her contribution as an 
educator and reformer, and her insatiable passion for collecting not lovers 
but books, paintings, objets d'art and even other people's complete 
collections. Also, so far so good.

The oppulence and extravagance of her court is shown (an incredible 12 per 
cent of the national income went on the court) and the point is made that 
the peansants ultimately paid for all that Catherine bought or built.

But the program never actually goes much deeper than the people who want to 
concentrate on her lovers. She actually had 12, which as one academic says 
in the prograsm, is not really many, but her biographies were written in 
the ultra prudish 19th century.

The program, which has some splendid location shooting in St Petersburg, 
never finds it necessary to put her reign in the context of other economic 
or social or political developments in Russia at the time. Nor does it give 
us any indication as to how the other social classes lived at the time.

Was the period of her long reign "great" for serfs, artisans, clerks and 
minor officials? She believed in reading and education generally, but not 
for serfs, I'll be bound.

Once again, history devoid of social forces. The program is also enlivened 
by clips from several movies about Catherine, which are often farringly 
inappropriate in a "historical" account.

This week's Cutting Edge: Whale Hunters (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday) deals 
with the propaganda struggle in Japan over whaling. It examines the role of 
the Japanese Fisheries Agency in trying to promote the eating of whale meat 
in Japan (providing cut-price "whale burgers" and the like) while trying to 
convince younger Japanese that Japan is a whaling nation whose traditions 
are under attack.

The Commission's scientists argue that whales eat fish, so more whales mean 
less fish for people, hence whales should be hunted. Scientists and nature 
campaigners from other countries and from Japan itself reject their science 
as well as their logic.

The ABC's new drama series MDA (ABC 9.30pm Tuesdays) is not bad, as 
television drama series go, but that is not really saying that much.

Shamelessly combining two of the three main drama series "concepts"  
doctors and lawyers (omitting only "cop show")  there is plenty of scope 
for drama.

This week's episode deals with a very real dilemma that has potentially 
huge implications for doctors and the dreaded culture of suing people 
whenever anything goes wrong.

Kerry Armstrong stands out from the rest of the cast, giving the impression 
that she could do really well in a more incisive drama. Nevertheless, MDA 
is watchable and mercifully free of melodrama.

Finally, two programs that merit the attention of serious viewers. The 
first, deals with the state of our current knowledge of evolution: The 
Science of Walking With Beasts (ABC 10:00pm Thursday).

From the BBC Science Unit, this uses the same computer-animated techniques 
as its companion series Walking With Beasts.

The second is a program about Mimar Sinan: The Genius Of Ottoman 
Architecture, screening on As It Happened (SBS 7.30pm Saturday) 
showing how he gave shape to many cities and towns throughout Europe and 
Asia.

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