TV Blog: The Planets

Benjie Goodhart / 23 May 2019

This week’s highlights include Professor Brian Cox's stunning, CGI-enhanced tour of the solar system; plus the best of the rest of the week on TV.

The Planets 1/5, 9pm, Tuesday 28th May, 9pm, BBC Two

I went out on Friday and Saturday nights last weekend. I mention this not to show what a splendid social life I have, but because this is something of a rarity. The cumulative effects of two late nights, a little too much grown-up squash, and a couple of early starts thanks to the lethal kids/dog combination, meant that by Sunday evening, I was collapsing with exhaustion. But rather than go to bed, I had work to do. I had to watch the first episode of Professor Brian Cox’s new series, The Planets.

I bow to nobody in my admiration for Cox (a sentence better written down than said out loud). But when you’re watching his programmes, you need to bring your A-game. You can’t coast through quantum physics, even if it’s quantum physics made incredibly simple and explained very slowly in words of one syllable. It may very well just be me – I had to do physics GCSE at school, and it was like trying to teach complex equations to an octopus. But I find that I really have to concentrate when I watch Cox’s estimable shows, so much so that it’s only when they’re over that I realise I’ve been frowning for an hour.

Suffice to say, a state of advanced exhaustion is not the ideal preparation for tackling theoretical physics. So I’m not absolutely certain I understood everything. But I think I got the gist – and ruddy good stuff it was, too.

Cox started off by making me feel really, really insignificant, which is probably good for us all every once in a while. He described the hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy alone, and then expressed how the planets were but grains of sand in relation to these stars. So if these planets are infinitesimally small and insignificant things, on a universal scale, then I might need to accept that I’m not, in point of fact, the focal point of everything in existence. Writing a TV blog for Saga is, of course, hugely important. But maybe not quite that important.

Events started off a little while ago. 4.6 billion years ago, to be exact, when our sun had just been born (that must have been some old labour). The solar system consisted, a bit like our basement, almost entirely of dust. The dust began to stick together, and grew and grew in size until planetary embryos were created. They continued to grow, and the more they did so, the more they exerted a gravitational pull on everything around them. Eventually, planets were born – the terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, the four planets closest to the sun.

One of these planets is unique: Earth. It is home to “the most complex phenomenon in the Universe”. I assume he means the plotting of Line of Duty. “It’s the thing that brings meaning to the Universe.” Hmm. Line of Duty was good, but that’s a big call. Oh. He’s actually talking about ‘life’. Fair enough.

But apparently, each of the other terrestrial planets had a moment in its past when, had events aligned just fractionally differently, it might have sustained life.

Each planet is discussed in turn, and Cox, as ever, offers up a wealth of riveting information. There’s Mercury, with its extremes of temperature, and its weird elliptical orbit. Turns out that Mercury was once a near neighbour of Mars, until a collision with another massive celestial body sent it spinning towards the sun. Now it clunks about in space, being all weird, with its day being twice as long as its year.

There’s Venus, an enigma shrouded in cloud that, for years, nobody knew anything about. A bit like Manchester. The they discovered it was ridiculously hot, a hostile place where no life could safely exist. Maybe more like Magaluf, then. But once upon a time, when the sun was young, it was a very different story. Mars, too, had water once, and the prospect of life. But it lost it all its water, much as my daughter does when attempting to lift a cup from the sink to the table.

The whole thing is illustrated with spectacular CGI, and Cox presents from a plethora of stunning, normally rather barren locations. (If you’re tying to explain what a featureless vision of hell Mercury is, there’s not much point in doing it in the Oxford Botanic Gardens.) It is an absolute triumph, even if Cox ended up telling us all that the planet will die in five billion years. I just hope they’ve concluded Line of Duty by then.

The Blitz: Britain on Fire 1/3, Monday 27th May, 9pm, Channel 5 

While the impact of the Blitz on London is well known, people may not be aware that other British cities also survived devastating bombing campaigns. The 800,000 people of Liverpool were forced to withstand repeated poundings at the hands of the Luftwaffe thanks to its status as one of the busiest ports in England. The attacks reached a horrifying crescendo at the start of May, 1941, when wave after wave of bombers attacked the city night after night, in an attempt to destroy the docks, and break the spirit, of Liverpool.

Over three consecutive nights, this meticulous documentary presented by Michael Buerk, Angelica Bell and Rob Bell, charts in forensic detail what happened to the city when death and destruction rained down from the skies for a week. Events are recounted through the stories of various individuals caught up in events: the merchant navy captain whose ship was in dock; the auxiliary fireman and his family; the mum of six with no air raid shelter; the doctor and matron; even a film star and her new husband.

It’s a familiar and effective device. Using individual stories adds colour and context to proceedings. It also humanises them. Hearing that Liverpool was battered by over 2,000 high explosive bombs is one thing: seeing what effects those bombs had is quite another. The stories are told by the descendants of those involved, apart from Flo Richardson, 98, who is more than capable of telling her own story, thanks very much! Mixed with archive footage, and pieces to camera filmed on location, this makes for an evocative and atmospheric journey.

The stories are intercut, and spread across the series, so in most cases I don’t yet know how things are going to turn out. But I’m already worried about Margaret Johnson. She’s a mum of six, who’s already had to move once after her home was bombed. Their new accommodation doesn’t have an Anderson Shelter. She’s also nowhere near a communal shelter, and she lives near the docks. Meanwhile, film star Mary Lawson is in town with her new husband, an aristocratic airman called Buster. They’ve taken advantage of his leave to come to Liverpool to get away from the war. Irony can be more than a little cruel. Then there’s Captain Howard Kinley who has just taken command of the SS Malakand, and is loading its cargo in docks that are bombed nightly – and that cargo is 350 tonnes of high explosive...

Most powerfully of all, though, is Flo Richardson, who recalls the day, 78 years ago, her family’s life changed forever. She and her mother spent the night of May 2nd in an air raid shelter. “If I close my eyes, I can still hear the drone of those bombers overhead.” Her father was at home, preparing for his shift as an auxiliary fireman. What happened next was extraordinary, miraculous and tragic all at once. I fear it is not the last tragedy that we shall encounter in this series, as we look back at a city that stood firm in the face of a murderous onslaught all those years ago. The docks may have been breakable. The spirit of the people of Liverpool, not for the first or last time, was made of stronger stuff.

The best… and the rest:

Saturday 25th May

Life Stories 1/7, 9:15pm, ITV: Piers Morgan speaks to Mel B about the Spice Girls, fame, divorce, drink, drugs and her suicide attempts in this frank and forthright discussion.

Sunday 26th May

Equator from the Air 1/4, 8pm, BBC Two: Gordon Buchanan explores equatorial habitats from above, using helicopters, light aircraft, drones, satellites, and really, really tall people. Okay, maybe not the latter…

EU Elections 2019, 10pm, BBC One: Huw Edwards presents coverage as flying milkshakes and inflammatory rhetoric are finally replaced by the democratic process. Politics, huh?

Monday 27th May

Springwatch 1/12, 7:30pm, BBC Two: The annual look at vernal goings on, helmed by Chris Packham, Michaela Strachan and Iolo Williams, returns with a series of 90-minute specials to kick things off.

Britain’s Got Talent, 7:30pm, ITV: A week of live semi-finals kicks off tonight, so if dance troupes, child singers and death-defying stunts are your thing, it’s like Christmas in May. If it’s not, steer clear of ITV.

Thursday 30th May

The Final mission: Foxy’s War, 9pm, Channel 4: Jason Fox spent three years in Afghanistan a decade ago. Whilst there, he lost friends, narrowly escaped death, and suffered PTSD. Now he goes back to meet former friends and foes, and to discover if it was all worth it.

Klopp vs Poch: Battle of the Supermanagers, 10pm, Channel 4: the broadcaster seeks to clamber aboard the groaning Champions League bandwagon with a look at the managers of Liverpool and Spurs ahead of Saturday’s final.

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