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TV review: My Father and Me, The Secret Science of Sewage, and The Terror

26 March 2021

Layfayette Film Ltd

The Poster “My Father and Me” was behind the extended account of the filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s family story, of the same name (BBC2, Saturday)

The Poster “My Father and Me” was behind the extended account of the filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s family story, of the same name (BBC2, Saturday)

MY FATHER AND ME (BBC2, Saturday) was the filmmaker Nick Broomfield’s extended account of his family story. It was more than personal and introspective: it illuminated our recent social and economic history. His father, Maurice Broomfield, was Britain’s leading industrial photographer in the post-war years of a manufacturing boom, commissioned to produce images of factories and processes.

His heart and soul was in the work: he believed in the nobility of heavy industry, the inherent drama and beauty of the workplace, and the humanity of the workforce. His images were meticulously planned, set up, and lit; the results married expressionist abstraction to Hollywood gloss.

Nick, a rebel against the private education that his upwardly mobile father insisted on, thought his work culpably romanticising and thoughtlessly optimistic, ignoring the exploitation of workers. His films were, in contrast, deliberately gritty and uncompromising, embracing everything that his father had struggled to leave behind in his poverty-stricken working-class childhood, confronting the chasms of social inequality which mirrored the rift between them.

Nick’s concerns derived more from his mother’s parents — Jewish refugees whose family numbered many Holocaust victims. What father and son shared was despair at the destruction of British industry, the devastation of mass redundancy, and the belittling of community and solidarity. By the end of Maurice’s very long life, they recovered love and affection, valuing and appreciating each other’s work and holding joint exhibitions.

Who would have expected The Secret Science of Sewage (BBC2, Thursday of last week) to be so fascinating? Drs George McGavin and Zoe Laughlin, relishing every pun that the subject inspires, celebrated Birmingham’s vast sewage-treatment facility, which processes the waste matter of 1.7 million people. It was, they insisted, the ultimate renewable resource; and this unlikely harvest is, indeed, remarkable.

Urine can generate electricity; faeces contain bacteria from the gut which offers new wonder drugs; they generate biomass methane that powers 28,000 homes; they makes splendid soil conditioner; and, finally, if you encourage the right micro-organisms, they clean up thoroughly, making the liquid pure enough to pipe into rivers. Now, we need the technology to make these innovations large-scale, economically viable, and socially acceptable, forcing a radical redefinition: no longer waste, but a precious commodity.

The Terror (BBC2, Wednesdays), a fantastical dramatisation of Sir John Franklin’s tragic attempt to find the North-West Passage creates horrific atmosphere and elemental otherness. Franklin’s misplaced Christian faith, trusting in divine protection rather than paying heed to knowledge and experience, condemns his men. Their imperialistic hubris has polluted the ice’s eternal purity; a monster more spirit than corporeal inexorably picks them off; unavoidable retribution awaits. It is almost unwatchable — but terrific.

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