HOWEVER hard your choirmaster tried, I suspect that, in one
aspect at least, your Ash Wednesday performance of the Allegri
Miserere was inauthentic: the top lines, surely, were not
sung by castrati.
This central phenomenon of late-Baroque music provided the
starting point for The Fantastical World of Hormones
with Dr John Wass (BBC4, Wednesday of last week). Why
should the removal of a boy's testes just before puberty, to ensure
that his singing voice never broke, have such widespread other
physiological effects as, for example, over-long limbs?
Gradually, medical research showed that many crucial processes
in regulating our bodies were governed by chemicals generated in
glands, especially the thyroid. Deficiency in such production could
be remedied by implanting healthy thyroids from other animals.
Experiments proved that the chemicals moved round the body not by
"nerves", but by secretion.
More than 80 different hormones have now been identified, and we
know that they are created by many different bodily constituents.
Even the crucial regulatory part played by the pituitary gland
appears to be only part of the full picture; and, more worryingly
for those of us who like to cling to the chimera of free will as an
essential component of the human condition, it seems that some
radical hormonal imbalances are genetically determined: there
really is an obesity gene.
Normally, I dislike any programme that contains in its title the
name of the presenter; but Professor Wass was so committed to his
subject and communicated such a particular excitement about how
much it is still in its infancy that the awkwardness is
This contrasted with another BBC4 documentary, The Secret of
Bones (Tuesday of last week). The evolutionary biologist Ben
Garrod does not have the same antennae to warn him that this or
that expression is, frankly, banal. The subject is fascinating:
skeletons may seem to be inflexible structures, but he shows us
that bones are constantly changing.
It was disappointing, though, to learn that the snake's unique
skeleton, consisting entirely of vertebrae, is evolutionary rather
than, as I have always insisted, the instantaneous result of divine
A couple of clergy turned up in Brushing Up On . . .
Miniature Britain (BBC4, Thursday of last week), a compilation
of TV archive material which last week looked at our national
obsession with making models. But the presenter, Danny Baker,
wrecked what could have been enjoyable. Each clip of a 1950s
enthusiast showing off his model railway, boat, or toy furniture
was made the excuse for a lame joke.
There are questions worth asking: why do so many invest huge
chunks of their lives in creating small-scale worlds? Why are
priests especially drawn to railways? Why, once girls relegate
their doll's houses to the attic, is this so predominantly a male
pursuit? And however misplaced we might think it, we could at least
be impressed by the astonishing levels of skill on display. But
Baker's relentless gags degraded the whole subject - and, more