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Her face rang a bell

10 March 2017


Sophisticated: in Sound Waves: The symphony of physics (BBC 4), Dr Helen Czerski uncovered Big Ben’s combination of overtones

Sophisticated: in Sound Waves: The symphony of physics (BBC 4), Dr Helen Czerski uncovered Big Ben’s combination of overtones

HOW exactly do bells make their sound? It is something of a first on mainstream TV for a pre­senter to own up to being a bell-ringer. Perhaps it is all part of a strategy by the Royal Cumberland Youths to win public approbation, when the presenter in question con­founds ill-natured prejudice by not being also an obvious trainspotter or (on the evidence of her trim physique)
an over-enthusiastic de­­votee of CAMRA.

Dr Helen Czerski, in the first episode of Sound Waves: The sym­phony of physics (BBC4, Thurs­day of last week), demonstrated how the boom of Big Ben is made up of an exquisite combination of over­tones. She showed us how, on being struck, it microscopically expands, distorts, and contracts on different parts of its surface.

She went on to explain the com­plexity of other acoustic signatures, pointing out that, in most instances, the sound is produced by something different from the thing that we nat­urally expect: the vibration of a violin string, for example, is almost inaudible until it is amplified by the body of the instrument. Most intri­gu­­ingly, she was able to show us inside Lesley Garrett’s head as she sang. The vocal folds that produce all human sound vibrated far slower than I had expected; but they, too, make little noise until amplified.

This was the remarkable bit: the electron scanner demonstrated the amplifier at work. It is simply the internal cavities of mouth and throat, which, in a trained singer such as Garrett, are capable of producing an astonishing range, complexity, and subtlety.

Meet The Lords, BBC2’s new docu­­mentary about the Upper House (Monday of last week), dithered about what tone to take: was it a serious attempt to analyse whether there is anything worth celebrating about this democratic anomaly, or essen­tially an enter­taining collection of anecdotes and curiosities?

Of course, their lordships, and those who service their institution, will, in the English way, be self-deprecating and whimsical about the whole thing, playing up to the cameras. Never take this mode at face value: it may hide a conviction that the Lords actually plays a vital part in revising governmental ex­­cesses.

Not so long ago, radical reform­ing measures were occasionally in­­troduced because no party dared risk the unpopularity of association with, for example, the decrimin­alisation of homosexual acts. The cameras followed the debate on last year’s Housing Bill: would the peers dare to send it back to the Com­mons? But the programme failed to show us the denouement, preferring to focus on Baroness King as she packed her suitcase to go the US.

The new series of Inside No 9 (BBC 2, Tuesdays) continues to be as hit-and-miss as before. The first episode, about who would foot the bill after a restaurant dinner, was exquisite and heart-stopping in its reverses; last week’s tale of donnish jealousy and ghastly murder felt far more contrived.

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