THERE is no call for my customary cheap opening gag designed to
catch your attention when my first subject is Britain's Great
War, Jeremy Paxman's documentary series (BBC1, Mondays).
Rather than present the customary overview of politics and military
strategy, he is exploring how the conflict transformed Britain's
population, attitudes, and structures.
Paxman is keen to make unfamiliar points: the population as a
whole was by no means baying for war - 100,000 people demonstrated
for peace, and many of the political leaders broke down in tears as
it became clear that there was no turning back.
They knew what people at large ignored: Germany had for years
been training a two-million-strong army, equipped with the most
modern technology of destruction. The UK had only 80,000 regular
soldiers, and assumed that its Navy was what really mattered; but
Germany's desire to subjugate Europe could be frustrated only by
Once war was declared, support was practically universal.
Paxman's trademark mockery is strangely muted - he is moved by the
overwhelming response to the call to arms, and takes seriously the
sense of patriotic duty that actuated those enlisting.
The German naval bombardment of Hartlepool and Scarborough, and
the Zeppelin bombing raids brought the war to the streets of
Britain: for the first time in centuries, civilians were at the
mercy of an aggressor; being an island was not enough.
This is powerful and affecting TV; my only cavil is that the
particular focus gives a curiously one-sided view: we have not
heard, for example, about the far greater sacrifices made by French
or Belgian combatants and civilians.
Waldemar Januszczak is the "rough boy" of art historians - or,
at least, those who make TV documentaries. He acts the buffoon,
clownishly swaggering about in conscious contrast with the
exquisite delights of Rococo (BBC4, Tuesday of last
His first programme had taken "pilgrimage" as its theme, looking
at the splendours of Balthazar Neumann's Bavarian churches - a
further example of the way in which art critics present Christian
doctrine and practice in greater depth than anything we get from
supposedly religious broadcasts.
This theme was developed in his close study, in the second
programme, of Tiepolo's depiction of the Blessed Virgin Mary's
giving the scapular to St Simon Stock. For all its rosy
efflorescence, Januszczak believes, we ought to take the rococo
movement seriously, because its focus on the themes of happiness
and pleasure still govern much of what we take for granted as
desirable human goals today: in other words, it had a key part to
play in shaping our modern world.
House of Fools (BBC2, Tuesdays) is Vic Reeves's and Bob
Mortimer's parody of a 1960s sitcom. The humour is surreal, the
action more like a lived-out comic strip than anything you could
reasonably persuade real flesh-and-blood actors to perform. It is
vulgar and highly offensive. It extends the boundaries of what
anyone could consider possible or certainly desirable. I find it
very funny indeed.