TV programs worth watching
Sun 23 March — Sat 29 March
Ken Burns's previous award-winning documentary series on aspects of Americana have dealt with The Civil War, Baseball and Jazz. All have been splendidly made and enthralling to watch (and with their fascinating soundtracks, to listen to). His latest series examines the life and career of Mark Twain (ABC 9.30pm Sundays). Twain (real name Samuel Clemens) epitomises literary Americana. Even when abroad (and he travelled widely) he wrote of the foreign world for Americans. "My books are water; those of the great geniuses are wine", he once said. "Everybody drinks water." During his long life he was a printer's apprentice and a riverboat pilot, a prospector and a reporter. He came to be considered one of the greatest humorists on earth and a brilliant performer on the lecture circuit who could entertain almost any audience. Voices heard in Mark Twain include those of Phillip Bosco, Tim Clark, Blythe Danner, Ann Duquesnay, Carolyn McCormick, Amy Madigan and Cynthia Nixon. Kevin Conway is heard as the voice of Mark Twain. The visual material unearthed by Burns and his team is truly remarkable. A friend of mine, visiting a restaurant in the US, was recommended by his host to "try the steak . it's good here". When it arrived, it was not a piece of meat but a large pattie of chipped beef. The meat packing industry, plagued by organised crime involvement, has always been of concern to socially conscious Americans. Freshly packed meat is sent to supermarkets in better off neighbourhoods on a sale or return basis. Unsold meat is returned to be repacked and sent out to supermarkets and convenience stores in not-so-well-off neighbourhoods. Unsold meat from there is similarly returned, and now beginning to turn green, is repacked and sent out to shops in poor neighbourhoods. But in Modern Meat in the Cutting Edge timeslot (SBS 8.30pm Tuesday), the subject is the way today's highly-industrialised meat business has fundamentally changed the composition of the typical American burger, causing some to fear the spread of serious — and even deadly — bacteria. With enormous numbers of cattle now being herded, fattened in "feed lots", slaughtered, and ground up together, it's virtually impossible to determine how many cows contribute to a single burger. Modern Meat also explores the powerful US meat industry's attempts to resist US Government regulations aimed at preventing contaminated meat from ending up in supermarkets and fast food chains. Despite the new US federal safety regulations, more than 100 million pounds of meat have been recalled since 1998 due to suspected bacterial contamination. And in mid-2002, America's largest meat processor had to recall 500,000 pounds of beef contaminated with e.-coli bacteria from 17 States. Bon appetit! The latest offering from the BBC's acclaimed Natural History unit with David Attenborough is well up to their usual standard, a standard that has indeed set a new benchmark for nature programs. The Life Of Mammals (ABC 8.30pm Wednesdays) examines the most diverse group of animals ever to live on earth. Hair, warm blood and the capacity to give birth to live young means mammals have been able to colonise every environment. In episode one, A Winning Design, Attenborough visits Australia to look at the earliest mammalian forms, monotremes and marsupials. It is typical of the high quality of this series that the episode is instructive and revealing, even to Australians well versed in nature programs about our own country. The footage of rock wallabies effortlessly hopping about on cliff-faces is equally as fascinating as the infra-red photography of the underwater- feeding marsupial possum from South America, the yapok. We also learn that since the introduction of high cranes allowing detailed study of the forest canopy in South America (once joined to Australia as part of Gondwanaland) scientists believe there may be more marsupials (mainly possum-like creatures) there than in Australia. The South American marsupials have not diversified into as many ecological niches as in Australia, though, because of the competition for those niches from placental mammals moving in from the north. This is quality viewing, highly recommended. As It Happened: Mutiny: The True Story Of Red October (SBS 7.30pm Saturday) claims that on November 9, 1975, Valeri Sablin, the "senior Communist" on the Soviet destroyer Sentry, led a mutiny supported by all the crew and most of the officers. They would sail the ship to Leningrad where the populace would welcome them and then join them in a popular uprising to oust the corrupt Brezhnev leadership and return the USSR to a true Bolshevik policy. Assuming any of this is true (the program claims it was the basis for the US fictionalised movie The Hunt For Red October although they have little in common), as political officer on the Sentry Sablin would have to have known that this was not the way to bring about political reform (if that is indeed what he wanted). He would have known too that without a revolutionary situation his mutiny would be at best a futile, doomed gesture. The mutiny was quickly put down and Sablin was shot, so the incident remains only a curious footnote in Soviet history. How much of the account is true, who knows? How much is actually significant, you must judge for yourselves. Computers have made special effects in movies so seamless and natural- looking that we tend to take them for granted now. Indeed, where would the average Hollywood film be without computerised special effects? But in the days before computers (remember them?) convincing special effects were an art that spanned many crafts. They required a full understanding of the possibilities of motion picture photography and lighting as well as painting, model-making and of course film editing. Among many films that featured ingeniously creative "special effects", the greatest by far has always been Merian C Cooper and Ernest B Schoedsack's 1933 classic King Kong (ABC 10.30pm Saturday). A down-on-his-luck Hollywood producer sails to a mysterious South Sea island containing dinosaurs and a giant ape. Captured, the ape is taken back to New York to be exhibited as "the eighth wonder of the world", but breaks loose, wreaks havoc and is shot down on top of the Empire State Building. Special FX genius Willis O'Brien created naturalistic effects that would not be equalled for 40 years or more. Wounded dinosaurs bleed, the 30-foot tall ape (in most scenes an 18-inch model) has more expression than most of the human performers, and ape and humans interact most convincingly. Made before the Hays Code was introduced, the film includes shots of Kong chomping on natives as if they were carrots, and an extraordinary scene in which a bemused (and subsequently smitten) Kong investigates Fay Wray, clutched in his giant hand, using an equally giant finger, in the process removing most of her clothing. Atmospheric from its foggy opening on studio-built New York docks to producer Carl Denham's final line "It was beauty killed the beast", King Kong single-handedly saved RKO from bankruptcy. It remains a treat.