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Television: Our beginnings

26 October 2011

by Gillean Craig

“CAN these dry bones live?” Under the articulation of the anatomist Alice Roberts, presenter of BBC2’s new three-part series Origins Of Us (Mondays), they most certainly can.

She is telling the story of human development, how we came to be how we are today, and it is one of the best scientific documentaries I can remember. It is excellent not merely because of the pace of the narrative, genuine engagement with the sub­ject, and brilliant camerawork, but because Dr Roberts treats her audience as Homo sapiens — that is, as people with brains who are interested in seeing evidence and drawing conclusions.

More than six million years ago, our species developed a significant distinction from other apes: we began to walk upright. The change is demonstrated in, so far, a single anthropoid skull where — look! — his spinal column, just like ours, enters the skull directly below rather than at an angle; so the head was balanced on a vertical spine.

Dr Roberts showed us how the fossil bones tell the tale: ankle joints that can move differently, changes in body shape, large hips and knees for running long distances, and how balancing on two legs freed our hands for tool-making. She even used diagrams, which are as unfash­ion­able in TV documentaries as Pray­er Books are in Charismatic churches.

Humankind made the great move of coming down from the tropical forests to the savannah grasslands. What Dr Roberts failed to do was to tell us which particular fossil belonged to Adam, and which to Eve. Perhaps we’ll get to that later in the series.

Other, more recent, fossils were disinterred on BBC4 last Wednes­day, in two programmes that looked back to the furore that greeted the release, in 1979, of the film Monty Python’s The Life Of Brian. First was Holy Flying Circus, an extraordinary docudrama that reconstructed the realisation by the Python team that their new film was not only likely to cause offence, but could get them into real trouble with religious extremists, and might be banned from screening.

It was extraordinary because of the manner of it, not the matter — the whole thing was devised as though it were a Monty Python sketch, with fantasy sequences, the women’s roles played by men with beards, and scene after scene sub­verting its own pretensions to authenticity. It was a tour de force of post-modernist comedy.

The actors were astonishing look­alikes of the Python team, playing up their individual stereotypes for all they were worth, especially a saintly Michael Palin and an appallingly awkward and contrary John Cleese. Bizarrely, the more the piece went on, the more I felt that Cleese’s impossibility was somehow Christ­like, forcing radical crisis on all around him.

This was followed by a replay of the Friday NightSaturday Morning review in which Palin and Cleese were confronted by Bishop Mervyn Stockwood and Malcolm Muggeridge. I am sorry to say that the representatives of orthodox Chris­tianity seem even more embar­rassing today than they did at the time. The Bishop and Mugg sounded down­right rude — and were given an extraordinary amount of defer­ence and time to make their repeti­tious assertions. Another poor show­ing for the Church of England.

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