The Guardian October 23, 2002


Rob Gowland previews
National public television programs
Sun October 27 Sat November 2

The sperm whale is a gentle, timid creature. Except in the mating 
season, when males will fight other males for possession of the most 
females.

On November 20, 1820, in the whales' mating grounds of the mid-Pacific, the 
Nantucket whaler the Essex was struck by a huge sperm whale. Stunned, the 
whale lay beside the whaler momentarily before swimming off, only to turn 
and charge the small ship.

No longer than a tennis court, and worn out by twenty years' battling with 
the ferocity of the ocean, the Essex's timbers could not withstand the 
charge of the giant and the ship foundered.

The whale swam away while the whaler's crew took to three small boats. They 
were thousands of miles from land.

After a nightmare voyage of three months, in which death and cannibalism 
figured prominently, the few lucky survivors in two of the boats were 
rescued. The third boat was never found.

The survivors' accounts formed the basis for Herman Melville's classic of a 
vengeful whale Moby Dick. But Melville's story ends with the sinking of the 
whaler. As Moby Dick: The True Story (ABC 7:30pm Sunday) shows, the 
real human story took place afterwards.

An acted documentary, the program, directed by Christopher Rowley, is very 
well done, although reliance on computer simulations for sailing ships at 
sea leaves a bit to be desired.

What the program does do very well is to show what a bloody, gruesome 
business whaling was (and is  the Japanese and Norwegians still do it, 
after all). It also explains how and why a whale could attack a ship, 
albeit a small ship.

The Big Picture: Nuclear Terrorism: Blinding Horizons (ABC 8.30pm 
Wednesday) is a piece of Bush Administration scaremongering in support of 
the "war on terrorism".

It's from National Geographic, and it even includes a walk around 
Kabul to show us how much Afghanistan has benefitted from the US military's 
waging war against it. We are given a glowing account of the US in action 
against "the Taliban".

But the main thrust of the program is to convince us that terrorists could 
get "a nuclear device", that Al Qaeda wants to get nuclear weapons, that 
the White House takes the threat very seriously, etc, etc.

There is not the slightest hint that terrorism could be a reaction to US 
policies, or that the US is anything other than the poor innocent victim of 
irrational hatred by "fanatics", whose access to weapons of mass 
destruction we must stop at all costs.

The BBC telemovie The Secret (ABC 8.30pm Friday) looks and plays 
like a television drama rather than a cinema movie. It is competently acted 
and quite well directed, especially the opening, dealing with the apparent 
killing of a child by two older children.

This childhood crime is the secret of the title, a secret that causes 
designer Emma Farraday (played by Hadyn Gwynne) considerable angst as an 
adult. For good measure there's manslaughter. amnesia, adultery and 
attempted suicide to keep the viewers interested.

However, I did not warm to it, I am afraid. This may not be the program's 
fault so much as mine: subjective reactions are not a reliable guide to a 
film's artistic worth.

The dams being built by Turkey on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers will have 
a devastating effect on the people of Iraq, downriver from the dams, who 
will have their water supply severly interrupted if not stopped altogether, 
but no one seems to care about that.

However, a number of archeologists got their nickers well and truly in a 
twist when they realised that the dams would submerge (and destroy) the 
ancient Greco-Roman city of Zeugma.

Founded in 300BC by one of Alexander the Great's generals, Zeugma was 
largely unexcavated. A frantic race began to first discover what was there 
and then to record it and, if possible, preserve at least some of it.

They had less than five years in which to arouse world scientific interest 
and about six months of actual digging time. It was of course an impossible 
task but with money from the French government they did make some 
remarkable discoveries.

These included a Roman villa with 250 square metres of perfectly preserved 
frescoes and 750 metres of intact mosaic floors, all connected with the 
cult of the God Dionysus. These are priceless masterpieces and invaluable 
sources of information on the history of the Hellenistic and Roman Near 
East.

They came close to being lost forever. Who can say what other treasures and 
historic artefacts have been drowned by the Birecik Dam that flooded 
Zeugma?

In As It Happened: The Last Days Of Zeugma (SBS 7.30pm Saturday), 
the frantic struggle to uncover and record this historic site for posterity 
is related, and the question is asked why the realisation that the dam's 
construction would destroy forever such archaeological riches did not mean 
it's building at least being delayed if not stopped.

Already condemned for displacing 30,000 people, the Birecik dam means the 
loss of "large parts of universal memory, the destruction of the heritage 
of humanity. What future can justify the sacrifice of memory?"

I don't rate Rex Stout's sleuth Nero Wolf as one of my favourite literary 
private eyes. Despite his excessive weight ("a seventh of a ton"), his 
gourmet appetite and his self absorption, he is a bore of a character.

His acolyte cum assistant (and the nominal chronicler of his cases), Archie 
Goodwin, is more believably human, as are the assorted villains and victims 
that pass through the novels and stories. Stout's forte is intriguing 
plots.

Wolf has been filmed only twice before for the cinema (in the '30s) and 
once for TV (in the '70s). Now we have a new TV series, beginning with a 
movie-length episode A Nero Wolfe Mystery: The Golden Spiders (ABC 
9.30pm Saturday).

For the series, it is noticeable that Wolf's behaviour (as well as his 
girth) has been toned down, and Archie's role has been enhanced, to the 
benefit of them both.

Maury Chaykin plays Nero Wolfe about as woodenly as you could and still be 
listed as the star of the series. He only really comes alive in the 
denoument scene, where all the suspects are assembled by an obliging police 
force and the killer manouvred into confessing all.

The actual star of the show is however Timothy Hutton who plays Archie 
Goodwin. The series is set in 1950s New York (with Toronto standing in for 
the Big Apple back then).

The series doesn't look like the 'forties, but does look like the films of 
the 'forties, snarling cops and all.

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