Allan Radcliffe finds it’s yesterday once more in tellyland, as various documentaries do their bit to get to grips with our cultural past
Nostalgia is currently big business, and television producers have always been quick to take advantage of our romantic yearning for times gone by, whether endlessly revisiting classic programmes or winding the clock back to our political and cultural past in documentaries. Having tapped into the perceived dissatisfaction with the culture of the present in incessant rose-tinted clip shows about how great the 60s/70s/80s/90s were, the Beeb is now setting her time machine coordinates for a much more arduous journey — to explore the people, psyche and innovations of the Middle Ages.
BBC4’s Medieval Season kicks off with the pithily entitled Stephen Fry and the Gutenberg Press – the Machine That Made Us (BBC4, Mon 14 Apr, 9pm •••), in which the ubiquitous polymath goes in search of Johannes Gutenberg, the genius who invented the printing press more than 500 years ago.
While Gutenberg’s early prototypes are no longer in existence, Fry enlists the help of a pair of medieval experts to recreate the machine that powered the early Renaissance. At this point Fry’s voiceover becomes so excitable he sounds like he’s narrating a particularly exhilarating chapter from the latest Harry Potter novel, but his enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. While the character and motivation of Gutenberg himself remains elusive, in the end it’s the development of the most revolutionary advance in technology since the invention of the wheel that is the most compelling aspect of this documentary.
As a safe pair of TV presenting hands, Fry’s documentary is lavished with a budget that allows him to travel from 15th century Mainz, down the Rhine to Strasbourg’s famous Rue des Écrivains. Pity poor Professor Robert Bartlett, whose Inside the Medieval Mind (BBC4, Thu 17 Apr, 9pm ••) was obviously cobbled together using the leftover cash from the commissioning editors’ bar kitty for the Christmas night out. Bartlett, one of the world’s leading authorities on the Middle Ages, is forced to offer his insight into the emergence of science and logic at a time widespread superstition and all-pervading religion to a soundtrack that has been lifted from The Omen and with the unintentionally comical addition of some tacky visual aids. It’s a shame as the premise is fascinating, but the execution proves fatally distracting.
Over on ITV, the venerable Melvin Bragg has his knapsack packed for his own journey back in time, this time exploring the literary heritage of these islands. Melvin Bragg’s Travels in Written Britain (ITV1, Sun 20 Apr, 10.45pm ••••) sets out to explore both the heritage literature inspired by the diverse landscapes of Albion as well as that other, hidden tradition of diaries, letters and memoirs which give an insight into ordinary lives. While the first episode brought the presenter to the north of England, forthcoming instalments focus on how London has been brought to life in the work of Charles Dickens, Monica Ali and Peter Ackroyd, while the Midlands is portrayed by such divergent literary voices as Tolkien, Philip Larkin and Sue Townsend. Bragg’s lively, action-packed whizz across moors, shires, dales and industrial skylines winds up in Scotland for its final episode (broadcast on Sun 27 Apr) where the likes of Alex Salmond, Ian Rankin and, er, Gail Porter, consider the work of Burns, Scott and Irvine Welsh among others.
Comedian and writer Dom Joly is also nostalgic for that non-existent time when there was no little or no bureaucracy, less intervention by the authorities and fewer annoying people. In The Complainers (Five, Mon 14 Apr, 9pm ••) Joly enlists some pals to help him ‘take revenge on life’s irritations’, which involves shouting over a tannoy at hoodies and litter louts caught on CCTV and sneakily clamping an industrious clamper. Hil-A-rious! The sequence in which a group of Neanderthals working on a building site are given a taste of their own medicine when the object of their lecherous howling lifts her skirt and reveals that ‘she’ is in fact a ‘he’ is vaguely satisfying, but overall this is just a reactionary version of Beadle’s About or Candid Camera. Jeremy Clarkson will love it.