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.