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TV review: The Holy Land and Us: Our untold stories, Wild Isles, and Becoming Frida Kahlo

24 March 2023

BBC/Wall to Wall/Tom Hayward

David and Daniel Ganceinvestigate the history of Daniel’s father, Leonard, in The Holy Land and Us: Our untold stories (BBC 2, Tuesday of last week

David and Daniel Ganceinvestigate the history of Daniel’s father, Leonard, in The Holy Land and Us: Our untold stories (BBC 2, Tuesday of last week

“IT MAKES me proud to learn that my ancestor protected both Christians and Jews.” The Holy Land and Us: Our untold stories (BBC 2, Tuesday of last week, three-part series) comes the closest of any programme that I have found this year to being even remotely linked to the sacred season of Lent — even though neither of its subjects is Christian. It is highly topical and deeply moving.

The British barrister and television presenter Rob Rinder and the writer and actor Sarah Agha, respectively Jewish and Muslim, travel to Israel and Palestine to explore how their families’ stories (not spoken about at home) were radically changed by the founding of Israel in 1948.

Mr Rinder’s family had been largely wiped out in the Holocaust: the new Jewish state offered a sanctuary, their God-given home, where, at last, they could be safe from constant pogrom and persecution.

Ms Agha’s father, Mahmoud, was driven from his native land, his village was razed, and its fields were ruined, by the victorious Israeli settlers. He eventually found a new home in west London. She learned that her great-great-great-uncle had been “the Strong Man of Palestine”: Muslim himself, in the 19th century, he had protected Christians and Jews from the predations of the collapsing Ottoman Empire — hence her pride in a narrative so different from today’s seemingly unbridgeable sectarian strife.

Mr Rinder and Ms Agha send other British emissaries to uncover their stories. Shereen Malherbe, a British-Palestinian novelist who lives in Leicestershire, discovers, unbearably, that 22 members of her family were massacred at Deir Yassin. Daniel Gance, a Jewish Londoner, and his son, David, find out that Daniel’s father, Leonard, had helped to repel the Arab nations that sought to overthrow the new State of Israel. But, of course, such heroism paved the way for the wiping out of village after village: by 1949, there were 100,000 Palestinian refugees. I am confident that these appallingly opposed readings of history will be confronted — reconciled would be, alas, too much to hope for — in later episodes of this vitally important series.

No less decisive change affecting every one of us is presented magnificently in Wild Isles (BBC1, Sundays, from 12 March). It offers, simultaneously, heart-lifting glory and despair-inducing tragedy. In what is apparently Sir David Attenborough’s final on-location series, he returns home to show us that we inhabit a place of natural wonders “as dramatic and spectacular as anything he has seen anywhere else”. Sequence after sequence amazes with its marvels and complexity — but almost all end with a note of doom. Wholesale human depredation and its catastrophic offspring climate change present threat after threat of extinction. This feast for the eyes and imagination is a call to radical action.

Paintings that are as distressingly gory as any of Sir David’s creatures devouring each other alive are displayed in the multi-layered Becoming Frida Kahlo (BBC 2, Fridays, from 17 March). They provide the context for her uniquely visceral, still shocking, depictions of her personal agonies.

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