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TV review: Oceans Apart, Black Earth Rising, and Killing Eve

28 September 2018

BBC/Clearstory/Alex Brisland

Dr James Fox (right) with the grandson of the Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, at Mount Hermannsburg, Australia, in Oceans Apart: Art and the Pacific with James Fox (BBC4, Mondays)

Dr James Fox (right) with the grandson of the Aboriginal artist Albert Namatjira, at Mount Hermannsburg, Australia, in Oceans Apart: Art and the Pacif...

PERHAPS, for once, we were not entirely to blame. In last Monday’s episode of the splendid documentary Oceans Apart: Art and the Pacific with James Fox (BBC4, Mondays), which focused on Polynesia, we heard from the familiar charge-sheet. British missionaries, in their zeal to save the immortal souls of peoples whom they considered essentially children, destroyed ancient culture and wisdom, consigned wonderful artworks to the flames, and made the men wear trousers.

But Dr Fox then took a turn quite unexpected from his profession: he said that as great a fault (in an opposite direction) lies with that darling of the cognoscenti, Paul Gauguin. The Impressionist reinforced the myth of the South Sea Islands as a place of paradisal innocence, free from the deadening writ of European morality, where, wilfully blind to sophisticated local social mores, he could indulge in as much sex as he liked: in other words, live a life of privileged abuse.

The extent to which Europe has any right to judge the actions of those continents it has long plundered is a central theme of Black Earth Rising (BBC2, Mondays). The International Criminal Court in The Hague is about to try one of the key players in the Rwandan genocide; but is he a criminal, or the commander who finally brought the killing to an end? Should former crimes be overlooked when balanced against the great good he did? Should the UN focus on warlords with no such defence?

The prosecutor, Eve Ashby, has a personal grudge, but we never learn what it is: in a shocking act of violence, she is murdered, along with the defendant and his unfortunate guards, before the trial has started.

Eve has a wonderfully talented adopted daughter, a Tutsi deeply scarred by the Hutu rampage, who, of course, despite all her protestations, takes over the case. It is about the most serious and challenging subjects, but, after two episodes, I cannot shake off my sense that, despite brilliant acting, the dialogue and plot hover on the edge of cliché and familiar pattern.

Every cliché is gleefully turned on its head in yet another compelling new thriller, oddly sharing with it our primal mother’s name. Killing Eve (BBC1, Saturdays) features the most amoral killer we have ever seen. It is disturbing because this killer — a pretty young woman — appears to have no sense of feeling or remorse whatsoever, delightedly jetting off to assassinate whatever victim her unnamed bosses select for her, in ever more gruesome fashion.

On her trail is a wonderfully ordinary policewoman, given the sack in the first episode and then taken on in some shadowy MI6 outfit as ramshackle as we would expect from a big British institution. Every exchange, each character quirk, is acute and razor-sharp, confounding every expectation.

For all its gore, it is also very funny, raising the worrying problem: should we really find murder so entertaining?

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