Rant of the week: Do we need professional TV documentary presenters?

Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

TV presenting, particularly for documentaries, is not an easy job. Not everyone can do it. Even if you go on one of the training courses that’ll teach you all the ins and outs, you’re still effectively acting: learning lines to be recited to camera for a show that millions and millions of people will watch, if you’re lucky, can be nerve-wracking and difficult. Even if you pull that bit off, there’s the intangible question of whether the camera will ‘love’ you or not, and whether you’re attractive enough as far as commissioners at least are concerned.

So a set of skills that aren’t entirely negligible. No wonder we end up with so few faces on the TV: Kirstie Allsop, Professor Brian Cox, Liz Bonin, Bettany Hughes, Sir David Attenborough, Bear Gylls et al – you’ll be familiar with practically all of them.

To a certain extent, particularly with documentaries, there’s also the ‘area expertise’ required to be authoritative: there’s a qualitative difference between documentaries that have Danny Wallace as their front man than Professor Brian Cox, because Wallace is hired to be an everyman while Cox is An Expert. Cox, however, is a scientist, so you don’t get him to present an episode of Timewatch, say, unless there’s some scientific component to it. There’s also the built-in marketing associated with a known face: it’s a lot easier to get money and an audience for something featuring Sir David Attenborough than some complete unknown naturalist.

But despite all that I’ve just said, I am worried that this concern with known faces and professionalism in broadcasting is impoverishing our broadcasting.

Now I love Bettany Hughes: I think she’s a fabulous broadcaster and she’s extremely knowledgeable about her subject area. The key point there is ‘about her subject area’. She specialises in Ancient Greek culture and history, and it’s noticeable that her best documentaries have been about these areas. Where she’s strayed out into other areas, with shows such as Divine Women, Alexandria or Seven Wonders of the Buddhist World, they have been noticeably poorer, less detailed and in some cases factually incorrect.

Ditto Brian Cox. He’s a very personable presenter and a particle physicist – he certainly knows his stuff in that area. So why on Earth was he host of The Wonders of Life, attempting to explain biophysics at a GCSE level, when that’s clearly not his area of expertise? Hell, I’d have taken Liz Bonnin over Cox for that, since she could arguably have added greater detail to the show, being a trained biologist. Which doesn’t explain why she was involved in the archaeology show Egypt’s Lost Cities, which largely consisted of shots of her and her co-presenter going “Golly!” at remote sensing data.

Unless you’re a genuine polymath like Jacob Bronowski, this cross-discipline hosting is something that should be avoided at all costs, otherwise, you might as well just get Vernon Kay in and be done with the whole ‘expert’ thing.

Meanwhile, surprisingly over on BBC2 rather than BBC4, which until now has been the last hold-out of truly intelligent documentaries at the BBC, they’ve been running the rather good The Other Pompeii: Life and Death in Herculaneum. Timed, I suspect, to coincide with the British Museum’s new exhibition on the subject, it’s hosted by Professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, one of the archaeologists who has been excavating Herculaneum. He’s not exactly a novice broadcaster, having been in several documentaries over the years, but he’s not one of the usual suspects. Despite essentially being a tour of the remains and a look at how the population of Herculaneum lived, from the lives of slaves through to what the poor ate (discovered by analysing their coprolites), the programme was utterly engaging, Nicholson pottering around markets, talking Italian to professors involved in the project and a variety of untelegenic fellow experts adding to the wealth of information imparted. Nicholson knew what to talk about, knew what he was talking about and knew how to talk about it.

By contrast, BBC1 went for the ‘TV face’ route, getting Margaret Mountford from The Apprentice to present Pompeii: The Mystery of the People Frozen in Time. Now, being BBC1, this was always going to be a dumber documentary anyway. And Mountford does have archaeological expertise, famously retiring from The Apprentice to finish her doctorate in papyrology, particularly as it pertains to Roman fragments from the Oxyrhynchus collection. But this was far the inferior show, leaving Mountford to stare at wax figures without adding much herself. Because knowing Latin and being able to analyse papyrus does not make you an expert on the archaeology of Pompeii.

So my pleading isn’t so much for fewer famous experts on TV as for more experts, and for those experts to be able to talk about things in which they are experts and interested. If someone like Wallace-Hadrill can make good TV, then there must be many others out there capable of hosting documentaries that will add to our knowledge rather than insult our collective intelligences.

But what do you think? Do we need professional TV documentary presenters who can host shows even on subjects that aren’t in their area of expertise? Or do we need more experts on shows, even if they’re not as good at hosting TV programmes as their more experienced colleagues?

PS I am aware, of course, that documentary hosts don’t necessarily write shows they host, even for subjects that they are experts in. There are researchers and consultants, obviously. Yet I still feel there is an empirical qualitative difference in terms of what goes into these documentaries if the host actually knows about the subject.


Question of the week: are modern documentaries worse because they’re shorter or because they’re stupider?

In Search of the Trojan War

So I’ve been despairing of the current state of TV documentaries for a while. Whether it’s the inherent fluffiness of Horizon now or the terrible state of pretty much any BBC1 documentary that doesn’t involve David Attenborough (e.g. Atlantis or Egypt’s Lost Cities) – imagine the horror of last week’s Horizon about the transit of Venus, hosted by Egypt’s Lost Cities‘ Liz Bonnin. Shudder. Even Bettany Hughes is going off the boil now she’s on the BBC, fronting opinion pieces masquerading as documentaries, such as Divine Women and her equally selective Timewatch show about Atlantis; Fry’s Planet Word was similarly disappointing.

You might think that BBC4 might be different, and in some cases you’d be right. But even some of these (e.g. Delphi – The Bellybutton of the World and Ancient Worlds) have been flawed, a little light on detail and occasionally wrong.

Okay, so we haven’t reached the nadir of the Discovery Channel et al (“Did aliens assassinate JFK?”) yet, but the days when you could actually learn a decent amount from a BBC documentary that isn’t about wildlife are disappearing fast, it would seem. As Victoria Coren put it on last week’s Have I Got News For You, QI is about the only programme on TV that doesn’t treat you like an idiot.

Now, the obvious counter argument to this is that I’m nearly 40 so maybe I’ve actually learnt a few things by now, so of course the documentaries I watch are going to seem less informative than the ones I watched when I was a kid – I’m older so it would seem my failing eyesight needs rose-tinted glasses to help it.

A test of that would be to watch older documentaries to see if I can learn something from them. Well, the trial run of that was when I watched Bronowski’s marvellous The Ascent of Man a little while ago. And while, naturally enough, there was a lot I already knew, as predicted, there was also a lot I didn’t.

Last week’s test was to try a documentary on another subject where I do have a big chunk of knowledge and/or specialist interest – in this case, late Bronze Age Greek history. Thanks to the marvels of Amazon, I got hold of a DVD of Michael Wood’s In Search of The Trojan War, a six-part 1985 series looking at the evidence for the Trojan War, Bronze Age history both in Greece and in the Middle East, and the history of the archaeology of the site believed to be Troy. And yes, I actually learned quite a bit, because it was bloody marvellous.

An interesting contrast with more modern documentaries is that Wood obviously knows his subject and he doesn’t try to hide it: he doesn’t have to pretend to be the naïf who needs everything explained to him, which is the usual trend (even the lovely Bettany does it) – an effort to make the documentary less didactic. Instead, Wood interviews people to find out things he doesn’t know, but where he does know information, he argues with his subjects and you get to see actual academic discussions of how to interpret, say, whether excavated walls were destroyed by earthquakes or by soldiers collapsing them.

And for Wood, the series is a definite search: by the end, he’s changed his mind about whether the Trojan War happened or not, and then he stinks his neck out to come to a conclusion – which is clearly labelled as his opinion, rather than the collective belief of academia as some documentaries suggest. True, some of the obviously staged scenes wouldn’t pass a BBC ethics committee/Daily Mail witch hunt these days, but this is definitely a series that will genuinely inform. If you have six hours to spare, I’d recommend getting it from Amazon (it’s only a fiver) or if you must, watch it on YouTube after the jump.

But there is an obvious counter-counter argument to the point: Michael Wood had six episodes to do his search in, whereas Bettany Hughes, for example, only had an hour and half to cover the whole of the Minoan civilisation when she was on More4. Of course, BBC4 shows such as Ancient Worlds and The History of Maths have had five or six episodes each, but Wood essentially had six episodes to explore one war and a very narrow period of history of time, so everything was a lot more spaced out in comparison; Bronowski, of course, had 13 episodes to deal with the history of science. Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe was four episodes, and his Wonders of the Solar System was five episodes – Carl Sagan’s fantastic Cosmos was 13 episodes.

There may be many reasons for this, ranging from budgets and modern trends in scheduling to a belief that viewers simply won’t stick around for a series that’s too long or a suspicion that people are actually stupider now so won’t stick around for anything too complicated. But whatever the reason, are modern documentaries catering to your intellectual needs?

So to cut a long question short:

Is the problem with modern documentary series that they aren’t long enough or is it that they genuinely aren’t as informative as they used to be? Or am I completely mistaken and they’re still as good if not better than they used to be and I’m just looking at the good ones, rather than the really dull, uninvolving ones of yesteryear? If they are worse than they used to be, what do you reckon the problem is? And would you watch a 13-part documentary if it was on TV these days anyway?

Of course, my theory on series length doesn’t explain why watching Horizon these days feels like being trepanned, but it does at least give other documentaries an excuse. Watch Michael Wood first, though, before you make your decision, particularly if you think Bettany Hughes has been ‘sexing things up’ – Wood goes topless at one point in the first two episodes and there’s a topless woman in the title sequence for no well-explored reason.

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Review and competition: Fry’s Planet Word

BBC Shop BadgePrice: £19.99 (Amazon price: £14.97; BBC Shop price: £12.99)
Released: February 2nd 2012

Time for another competition, courtesy of the BBC Shop. This time, in a little change of pace, it’s your chance to win Fry’s Planet Word, a globe-trotting five-part, two-disc expedition by Stephen Fry that investigates language and its use around the world over time.

Follow me after the jump where I’ll tell you all about it and how you can win it.

Continue reading “Review and competition: Fry’s Planet Word”

What did you watch last week? Including Veep, Avengers Assemble, The Bridge and The Almighty Johnsons

It’s “What did you watch last week?”, my chance to tell you what I watched last week that I haven’t already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I’ve missed them.

The usual recommendations from the first-run shows are: The Almighty Johnsons, The Apprentice, Awake, BeTipul, The Bridge, Community, Cougar Town, The Daily Show, House, Mad Men, Modern Family, and 30 Rock. Hunt them down.

I’ve still got last night’s Mad Men to get through as well as episode four of The Bridge.

First, though, a look at some shows I’ve tried this week:

  • Girls: I really tried to watch the second episode of this but it just bored me silly. It’s clearly intelligently written but it doesn’t feel like it’s saying anything new that anyone remotely clued up wouldn’t know already – or that’s actually worth saying. It’s also not as clever as it thinks it is. My recommendation: don’t watch.
  • NYC 22: Episode two was so massively conventional, stupid and uninteresting, I gave up on it. My recommendation: don’t watch.
  • Divine Women: Bettany Hughes on how women have been cut out of religion over the years. Characteristically, I got bored during episodes one and two when it moved away from Ancient Greece, but I actually found her (and Edith Hall’s) arguments about Gaia, Gaia-worship being supplanted by Zeus-worship somewhat unsupported by facts and dangerously close to goddess mythology, which, of course, has been largely discredited.
  • Veep – I really want to love this and I do like some of the characters, particularly Anna Chlumsky’s (yes, her from My Girl). Yet, it’s just a bit luke-warm compared to The Thick of It, without any of the real bite. It really needs a Macolm and quickly. How quickly? Well, five minutes into episode one, lovely wife said “No”, by which she meant she bored and wanted to watch something else. And I do sympathise with her on that score. Anyway, I’m watching episode two right now and still not loving it unfortunately.

And a few thoughts on the regulars:

  • The Almighty Johnsons – Playing catch-up here, so I watched three weeks in one go. Very much back to season 1 form, happy to see the back of Loki, and good to see the goddesses getting a chance to have plots that focus on them. And it’s so good to have Anders back again. And the last episode was so packed of revelations, it makes you think that maybe they’ve been planning this all along. Recommended.
  • Awake – Tedious, unfortunately – far too focused on the police cases.
  • Community – A spot-on spoof of Law & Order with a very surprising ending.
  • Cougar Town – Some actual plot and character developments, but still not riotous stuff.
  • House – Dark, but frustrating, particularly with the open-ended “maybe it was all a ghost” bit, which kind of goes against the whole point of the show. And again, a surprising ending.
  • Missing – I’m almost ready to give up on this, since it has some of the worst cg of the decade and is full of cloying parent stuff. You know, you’d think that with Ashley Judd on board, her entire character wouldn’t essentially revolve around being a mother and might have some other facets, but apparently not.
  • 30 Rock – I pity anyone who doesn’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge not just of NBC history but also Saturday Night Live, since that would have made no sense to anyone otherwise. But great to finally see Donald Glover’s impression of Tracy Morgan, as well as cameos from Jon Hamm and Jimmy Fallon (who of course couldn’t keep a straight face). And when Fred Armisen turned up, it took me a few moments to realise this wasn’t a Portlandia crossover episode.
  • The Bridge – Episode three is more a study in Asperger’s than anything else, but I’m still loving it.
  • Touch – Less heart-warming that normal and the whole thing could do with some revelations of interest now. No, old offices do not count.

And in movies

  • Avengers Assemble: Awesome. Not not just awesome – Thorsome. Seen it twice already and probably seeing it a third time this week. Joss Whedon has miraculously managed to create an ensemble superhero movie from four separate franchises and given every character decent amounts to do and say, while also giving other characters – Black Widow most noticeably – plenty of screentime and characterisation. Funny, intelligent yet fun and full of wonderful moments. My only caveat about the whole thing – apart from the slightly rubbish CGI when Loki’s ‘flying’ – is that while it’s great collectively, it’s a different beast from each of those preceding franchises, lacking the energy, vitality (and horniness) of Iron Man; the romance, beauty and joy of Thor; or the innocence and nostalgia of Captain America. But it finally gets Hulk right and you really want them to go back and CGI Mark Ruffalo over Eric Bana and Ed Norton in the previous movies, since he’s pretty much perfect.

“What did you watch this week?” is your chance to recommend to friends and fellow blog readers the TV and films that they might be missing or should avoid – and for me to do mini-reviews of everything I’ve watched. Since we live in the fabulous world of Internet catch-up services like the iPlayer and Hulu, why not tell your fellow readers what you’ve seen so they can see the good stuff they might have missed?


What did you watch last week? Including Mad Men, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Awake and Suburgatory

Jeremy Brett with Edward Hardwicke

It’s “What did you watch last week?”, my chance to tell you what I watched last week that I haven’t already reviewed and your chance to recommend things to everyone else (and me) in case I’ve missed them.

The usual recommendations from the first-run shows are: The Almighty Johnsons, The Apprentice, Awake, BeTipul, Community, Cougar Town, The Daily Show, House, Mad Men, Modern Family, Ringer, and 30 Rock. Hunt them down.

You may have noticed that “What did you watch last week?” is a little later than usual this week, since I’ve been away for a few days – the short answer to “What did you watch last week?” would have been “Not a lot,” if I’d answered it yesterday. Anyway, after a catch-up last night, I’m ready to reveal all, although I’ve still got the second episode of Magic City to try, the first episode of Bettany Hughes’ Divine Women, as well as the latest episodes of House and Touch.

First, though, a look at some shows I’ve tried this week:

  • The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – yes, the DVD box set came out and I watched a few episodes for the first time in – OMG – nearly 30 years. Marvellous stuff, although the casting of Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia didn’t ring true, and it makes me realise how close the BBC’s Sherlock actually comes to the original in tone.
  • Best Friends Forever: The first episode wasn’t too bad, but I managed five minutes of the second before my brain tried to end my life, so I had to give up on it. Sorry, but that’s a definite “don’t watch”.

And a few thoughts on the regulars:

  • Awake – loving how they’re starting to mine the unreal qualities of both realities for storylines (I’m not sure any explanation of how all this is happening will now work). Stupidly, I’ve only just noticed how different the colour palettes are for each reality (yellow for wife alive, blue for son alive). I just hope the conspiracy theory story arc doesn’t mess it all up.
  • Being Human (US) – Interesting to see them dovetailing back towards the UK original with Sally’s storyline, but staying completely separate with Aidan and Josh. Indeed, one thing that’s notable about this season is how little interaction there’s been between the regulars, with each essentially having his or her own plot complete with supporting characters, and very little to do with the others’ stories. Never quite hits the highs of the UK original, but far more consistent and with its own strengths.
  • Community – More sad than funny, I thought, but some spot-on moments and characterisation
  • Mad Men – A slightly rubbish fight scene (although an excellent idea in theory), but Mad Men‘s really firing on all cylinders now and the new Joan, Don, Lane and Betty are all endearing themselves to me considerably. The dream sequence with Mädchen Amick was completely mental, though, and the pill-taking was another of those glorious WTF? moments that make Mad Men such a watch.
  • Missing – a drop back in quality after last week’s recovery, but still not bad. Quite a decent bank heist, altogether, too.
  • Ringer – It was only a matter of time before Jaime Murray lezzed up, wasn’t it? But a good way to tie up a whole load of storylines.
  • Suburgatory – a nice nod to Dodgeball with a semi-pirate costume for Alan Tudyk’s character, as well as one of the most heinous bits of Prius product placement I’ve ever seen. But the bizarre cameo appearance of James Lipton really made the episode.
  • 30 Rock – Middling.

“What did you watch this week?” is your chance to recommend to friends and fellow blog readers the TV and films that they might be missing or should avoid – and for me to do mini-reviews of everything I’ve watched. Since we live in the fabulous world of Internet catch-up services like the iPlayer and Hulu, why not tell your fellow readers what you’ve seen so they can see the good stuff they might have missed?