The Americas with Simon Reeve 1/5, Sunday 6th October, 9pm, BBC Two
“I’ll give you £10 if you can guess which US state my wife travelled to recently.”
“No, that would be cheating.”
There you go. You come here for TV previews, you get terrible jokes thrown in for free. Anyway, Simon Reeve, the amiable travelogue presenter, is embarking on another journey, this one across the Americas. And he’s starting off in Alaska. To be more accurate, he’s in Denali National Park, flying across a frozen land of jaw-dropping beauty. To look at it, you’d think that all was right with the world, but the pilot assures him that the climate crisis has wrought some extraordinary changes in the last decade, most dramatically in the form of glacial melting. “It’s overwhelmingly beautiful,” says Reeve, “but it’s like looking at an injured wild animal.”
It’s difficult not to be struck by the irony of being educated about climate change by someone quite literally flying an aeroplane while she is doing so. This is further emphasised when they go and land on the glacier whose slow demise they have been lamenting. It’s a bit like being lectured by a lion on the benefits of veganism.
Simon is staying at an absurdly gorgeous lodge perched on the top of an Alaskan mountain, where you can see the extraordinary stark beauty if the landscape. He stands on the terrace and talks about the amount the glacier has shrunk. Oh, and by the way, the lodge can only be reached by helicopter or plane so… well… it’s clearly not run by people with an over-developed nose for hypocrisy.
Much of the first episode is given over to the destruction of the environment. Once upon a time, a travelogue taking in Canada and Alaska would have focused on bears and snowshoes and roaring fires and log cabins. Now it’s all environmental cataclysm and social problems. It might not make for such an aesthetic treat, but it is important and grimly fascinating.
Simon travels to two villages populated largely by indigenous Alaskan people. The first, Kaklovik, has seen life improved thanks to the financial incentives given by the big oil companies. The second, Arctic Village (how DID they think of the name?) dreads further development and industrialisation, and the effect it will have on the caribou herds upon which they depend. Kaklovik, incidentally, is not only in the thrall of oil money. It is also freezing cold, and alcohol-free. When Simon visits, the big draw is bingo night. If heaven is a place on earth, I think hell may be a village in Alaska.
Things aren’t necessarily a great deal better in Canada. Simon has always seen it as a green, clean, successful and happy country. This seems to be a less-than apposite description when you visit the tar sands of Alberta, home to a 370-square-mile mining area that is the largest and most destructive industrial project in human history.
Oh well. At least there are no social problems to speak of… Ah! In a whirlwind tour of ice-bound misery, we encounter rampant homelessness in an oil town, a horrific spate of disappearances among the indigenous women of Canada, and a terrifying drug epidemic in Vancouver.
This, then, is not easily confused with an episode of Wish You Were Here. It’s short on laughs, and long on problems. But it’s also educational, fascinating, and undeniably important. Not all of the world is nature reserves and palm-lined beaches, however much we might want it to be.
The Name of the Rose 1/8, Friday 10th October, 9pm, BBC Two
Being a TV writer is, let’s face it, a pretty cushy number. Sure, you have to watch your share of dross: Four years later, I still bear the scars of Flockstars, the celebrity sheep-herding show that was so bad I genuinely believe people should have gone to prison. But on the whole, the worst that can happen is you watch a show that is a little bit boring, or something in which so little of note happens that you have no idea how to fill your wordcount. (Tip for the reader: You can normally recognise these ones because I drift off into entirely unrelated subjects such as politics, parenthood and my wife’s snoring).
But with this show, I have encountered an entirely new problem, and one that I am slightly uncomfortable to admit. It doesn’t reflect on me particularly well. Still, here goes nothing: I didn’t really understand this programme.
It’s the first part of an eight-part drama series based on Umberto Eco’s 1980 international bestselling novel, also called The Name of the Rose. The year is 1327. Opening titles tell us that Ludwig of Bavaria has declared a separation between politics and religion. Pope John XXII has responded by excommunicating him and declaring himself to be in charge. Now, as we all know, religion is all about peace and love and understanding. So what happens throughout history when there is a religious disagreement? That’s right, war.
A young man, Adso da Melk, has been sent into battle by his father, who a general, who wants his son to spend his time chopping people’s heads off and bedding women. But you know how it is in life, when you want your kids to embrace a life of violence, hedonism and wild abandon, and all they want to do is pray. Bloody kids, eh? So Adso goes and starts following around a Franciscan monk, William of Baskerville (John Turturro) who, rather disappointingly, is not an enormous mythical dog rampaging across Dartmoor. Instead, he is a hugely intelligent and humble chap who dispenses bread and wisdom to the poor, who, not unreasonably, seem rather more interested in the former than the latter.
Anyoldhoo, William is heading for a Benedictine Abbey, where he will represent Ludwig of Bavaria in a theological debate against a group sent by the Pope. William and Adso arrive at the Abbey, only to discover that one of the young monks therein has fallen from a high tower. The Abbot asks William to investigate, which is sensible as, handily enough, he’s got a Sherlockian ability to divine vast amounts of information just by looking at people.
Meanwhile, at the Papal Palace in Avignon, old Johnny-boy (that’s John XXII to you) and his emissary Bernardo Gui (Rupert Everett, complete with dodgy Euro-accent) are plotting how to defeat William. I think. Or something. This is where things start to get a little murky.
Basically, from here on in, there’s quite a lot of mysterious theologising, and it all becomes a little highbrow for those of us who are quite keen on Richard Curtis films and Match of the Day. All the monks seem to be total oddballs, with a genuinely disgraceful line in haircuts. If there’s a barber in the Abbey, I say he’s the guilty one, regardless of the evidence, and deserves to hang. Also, nobody ever seems to smile, and there seem to be more rivalries and petty jealousies among the Benedictine monks than at a girls’ boarding school.
I looked up The Name of the Rose on Wikipedia, to see if I could make sense of it all, and found the following description of the book: ‘An intellectual mystery combining semiotics in fiction, biblical analysis, medieval studies, and literary theory.’ Whoop whoop! It’s hardly Jackie Collins, mind.
Ironically enough, though, it’s actually hugely enjoyable. It’s marvellously gloomy and atmospheric, and when you don’t know what’s going on, it’s just as rewarding to look at the screen and pay silent thanks to the fact that you’re not a 14th Century central European Benedictine Monk. Those dudes are not big on fun.
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The best… and the rest:
Saturday 5th October
Prince Andrew and Scandal in the House of York, 9:20pm, Channel 5: A look back at the history of controversies involving Duke of Yorks past, continuing right up to the issue engulfing the current occupant of this traditionally troubled role.
Sunday 6th October
Thomas Cook: The Rise and Fall of Britain’s Oldest Travel Agent, 8pm, Channel 4: How did the company, a globally recognised travel brand, end up on the financial scrap heap?
Wonderful World of Baby Animals 1/6, 8pm, Channel 5: The perfect antidote to the stresses of the modern world. Tune in, empty brain, and look at all de ickle cuties. Awwwwww.
Monday 7th October
Motherland 1/6, 10pm, BBC Two: Welcome return of Sharon Horgan’s marvellously acerbic sitcom about the joys and perils of parenthood. It’s the start of the school year, and Julia, Liz and Tim meet a new mum, Amanda, who seems to have it all. Yuk!
Tuesday 8th October
The River Thames: Then and Now 1/3, 8pm, Channel 5: A new series looking at the role the mighty river has played in shaping the development of London.
Wednesday 9th October
Catching Britain’s Killers: The Crimes that Changed Us 1/3, 9pm, BBC Two: The stories of the murder investigations that led to changes in the law, interrogation methods and forensic analysis.
Thursday 10th October
Million Dollar Wedding Planner, 9pm, BBC Two: Meet Lelian Chew, the wedding organiser in the Far East who only takes on ten events a year, each one costing an average of $1 million. Prepare for an overwhelming assault of the tacky, the vulgar and the downright camp!
Friday 11th October
Live International Football: Czech Republic v England, 7pm, ITV: Perhaps the toughest match of England’s European qualifying campaign sees them visit the Czech Republic, as yet unbeaten at home during the campaign.
Have I Got News for You, 9pm, BBC One: The satirical panel show returns. But what WILL they find to talk about?