AND here — confounding shameful bigotry — is yet another excellent thing to have come out of Africa. In the first episode of Extra Life: A short history of living longer (BBC4, Tuesdays), Professor David Olusoga and the American science writer Steven Johnson recounted how in 1706 a negro slave told his master, Mr Mather, a Presbyterian minister in Boston, about his native practice of variolation, inoculation’s forerunner. If a small amount of smallpox matter was smeared into a cut, the resultant infection provided lifetime protection against the lethal disease in 98 cases out of 100; for two per cent, it was fatal.
These were infinitely better survival odds than if you just caught the disease; but, during the next epidemic, Mather’s fellow Bostonians refused to adopt the practice. This was not just understandable anxiety about deliberately exposing yourself to potential death, but sheer prejudice: nothing good could be learned from an African.
The big picture of this series is to chart the astonishing extension of global average life expectancy from 32 years, in 1900, to more than twice that today. The “invisible shield” of vaccination against diseases that have throughout history cut swaths through human populations is one crucial factor — all the more significant to us in these days of Covid.
The programme had a second theme: how much the general good of better health is based on exploitation and discrimination. Native people and lower classes were used as guinea pigs for experimentation, whether they liked it or not. The benefits in every case were enjoyed — at least initially — by the wealthy and the more educated, greatly widening social inequality.
I found the pudding somewhat over-egged, and Professor Olusoga’s apparent eagerness to find racism everywhere counterproductive. For example, his indignation that the slave was renamed Onesimus suggests that he doesn’t even know the universal practice of adopting a Christian name at baptism, or accept the genuine delight with which so many Africans embraced the faith, as they still do.
Contemporary British Muslim life in a highly unfamiliar form is presented in the new comedy series We Are Lady Parts (Channel 4, Thursdays). The basic gag is the contrast between the assumption — held especially by their own community — that young Muslim women are meek, submissive, and modest, and this aggressive, foul-mouthed, goth-hijabed punk band. It is uneven and slight, but has some terrific jokes and welcome jolts.
In The Pact (BBC1, Mondays), four women workers at a Welsh brewery bundle their universally hated, abusive, and drug-addled young boss into the woods so that they can take a few compromising photos. By the morning, he is dead, strangled. It’s a starry example of an over-familiar genre: everybody has strong reason to kill him, everybody carries a sensational secret, twist follows twist, and flashback succeeds flashback — all undermining my caring about the solution.