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History on the fly

History on the fly

15 October 2005

12:00 AM

15 October 2005

12:00 AM

Norma Percy’s latest documentary, Israel and the Arabs: Elusive Peace (BBC2, Monday), was another remarkable production from Brook Lapping, a company that specialises in catching history on the fly, as it whizzes past. The first episode (of three) covered 1999 and 2000, when Bill Clinton became the latest US president to imagine that he could do some good. He was wrong, but you had to admire him for trying, with bravery, optimism and that slightly alarming secret smile of his.

The Brook Lapping style only works if you have the main players on camera, telling exactly what happened, and by some miracle they had managed to get them all. Except for Yasser Arafat, of course, though they had library film of him, too. But there was Ehud Barak, then prime minister of Israel, Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who charged hither and yon like a particularly nimble Brahmin bull, plus the interpreters. They usually have the best stories because they aren’t worried about what history, or even their electorates, will make of their performance.

You would imagine that a series of talking heads — ‘Then I made this offer, then I told him that might be difficult, then he said he would consult his advisers’ — would be tedious beyond words, but in fact it is compulsive, and like any drama has its most enthralling scenes. This week it came when Barak offered half of Jerusalem to the Palestinians. ‘If he doesn’t accept this, he’s just a terrorist…’ he had said. It was a back-of-the-neck-bristling moment.

In a sense this is the true end of history. The phrase ‘History will decide’ is always meaningless, since nothing in history can be fixed in amber. It’s not like proving the theory of relativity, or Fermat’s last theorem — something that can be established before we move on. If history ever made up its mind, historians would all be out of work.

And perhaps they will be. Because with a resource like this series, it is possible to come fairly close to knowing precisely what happened, what everyone said and what their motives were. Imagine if Norma Percy had interviewed Hitler and Chamberlain about Munich, or had rounded up all the key people at the Council of Vienna. The dole queue would stretch from Peterhouse to Trinity.

Nothing by Brook Lapping was at the top end of Channel 4’s Fifty Greatest Documentaries (Sunday), which was a pity. Instead, the industry professionals who compiled the list tended to go for the splashier and the more violent: Death on the Rock, for example, and Fourteen Days in May, about the Munich Olympics massacre. They even put the recent Faking It series in the top ten; that was fine, and far more revealing than the usual petty humiliations of most ‘reality’ television, but was it really better than The Family? Or Nick Broomfield’s astonishing portrait of Eugene Terreblanche, The Leader, His Driver and the Driver’s Wife?

But it was good to see The World at War, Granada’s epic from 1973 up there at number 4, and at number 2, Touching the Void, the 2003 film that recreated a climbing accident from 1985. Bowling for Columbine, Michael Moore’s anti-gun film, made number 3, while Fahrenheit 9/11 was at number 8, a reminder that Mr Moore has neither removed George Bush from office nor made any impact at all on gun legislation.

The richly deserved winner was the 7-Up series, which recently reached 49-Up, and which involves us so powerfully with all its characters that you watch it, wanting alternately to punch the air and weep.

Midsomer Murders (ITV, Sundays) is back, aptly now, since the Home Secretary is considering whether to merge smaller police forces. The fact that there is an institution called the Midsomer Constabulary makes me think he must be right — surely if they combined with Avon, or Thames Valley, they might prevent such a high proportion of Midsomer’s citizens from meeting death in so premature and gruesome a fashion.

DCI Barnaby has a new sidekick, DC Jones, who — unlike Morse’s Lewis — is too clever by half. Apart from that, it’s a very traditional show. We had the old haunted house (terrified small boy gets his bike trapped in the tangled branches around it) and even identical twins, played by Inspector Wexford under his stage name of George Baker. Midsomer mysteries, like Mystery Plays, bring comfort to the audience because they are all much the same.

Supernova (BBC2, Tuesdays) doesn’t quite work. Rob Brydon is a wonderful comedian, but the show has clearly been made for the Australian as well as the British market, so it feels it has to pull most of its punches. Brydon plays a British scientist, modelled loosely on Norman Wisdom and Michael Crawford, who goes to work at an observatory in the Australian outback. His Oz colleagues are mostly beautiful and brilliant women. The soundtrack is filled with the noise of boxes being ticked.

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