Everywhere you look there are television programmes trying to teach us something we didn’t know that we didn’t know (or didn’t think we wanted to), but it is rare to find a presenter in whom authority mixes with likeability as much as it does in Lucy Worsley. Or Dr Lucy Worsley, as the credits call her, in the fashion favoured by self-help books and BBC documentaries.
Elegance and Decadence: The Age of the Regency (BBC4 Mondays) may not have been a groundbreaking work of history but, thanks to Worsley’s incisive intelligence and easy manner, the series will have taught all but the expert a great deal about the period.
If Worsley was standing at the site where something happened, she didn’t make too much of it. Not once in three hours did she pull a soulful stare. And when she called on someone to inquire about Mary Shelley or JMW Turner or Beau Brummel or the Elgin marbles, it was the appropriate person. She went solo on Jane Austen and John Nash but still brought back the goods.
Worsley made an unnecessary sop to the audience when she compared the Regency (1811-1820) to the 1960s; the period was rendered sufficiently thrilling and comprehensible in its own terms. And it sounded odd to talk of Sir Thomas Lawrence “hanging out at diplomatic conferences”. Otherwise, the series cannot be faulted. It animated everything it touched on.
Then there was Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film: an Odyssey (Saturdays). Cousins has managed to persuade a mainstream channel, More4, to screen a documentary series about the history of cinema. This is a remarkable achievement but The Story is badly told.
Cousins doesn’t appear on screen, but his near-permanent voiceover will give most viewers an earache. Part of the problem is that he puts ominous emphasis on every word and leaves gnomic pauses between them, giving the soundtrack a permanent atmosphere of dying fall. Generally, he is lax in his use of language, favouring adjectives that assert more than they explain, and adverbs (“maybe”, “somehow”) that strive to disguise leaps of logic and cracks in the argument. Just because cinema is “poetic” and “sublime” doesn’t mean we can’t talk sensibly about it.
Cousins’s aim is to “redraw the map of movie history”, the old one being “racist by omission”. There is some truth in this and Cousins is virtually alone among British film critics in being able to provide any kind of account of Asian and African cinema. But the first two episodes (of 15) offered nothing in the way of novelty.
The series will go down better with viewers who come unencumbered by knowledge or ideas. The portrait of Hollywood cinema is blighted not only by prejudices that never successfully emerge as convictions but also by the odd error of fact. He tells us, for instance, that Charlie Chaplin was involved in starting American Artists (rather than United Artists), a howler by any standards. But I shall continue watching Cousins’ series, for the wonderful clips – and in the hope that he will offer glimpses of the untold story he so bolshily promises.
Melvyn Bragg is a different kind of presenter from Mark Cousins – sturdy rather than flailing – and Reel History of Britain (BBC2 weekdays) is a different kind of documentary series. But like The Story of Film, it is besotted with the moving image and every episode begins with an introductory spiel, in this case setting out Bragg’s claim that archive footage offers a unique portrait of 20th-century English life. In all, this prologue lasts two minutes, which may prove tiring for viewers tuning in every day of the programme’s month-long run.
The remaining 28 minutes follow Bragg as he takes a mobile cinema to a city or town for a themed screening. One of this week’s episodes was entitled “The Golden Age of Fishing”, which gives you an impression of the target audience. The episodes aren’t designed to have a cumulative impact; and thanks to the efforts of historians such as Angus Calder, David Kynaston, and Simon Garfield, Bragg’s brand of social history is no fresher than Cousins’ style of film history.
The new programme of most interest to many FT readers was surely the adaptation of Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big to Fail (Sky Atlantic Thursday), still peerless as a guide to the early days of the financial crisis. In films such as LA Confidential and Wonder Boys, the director Curtis Hanson displayed a gift for making light work, rather than heavy weather, of a spiralling, populous plot. Here, he gives us 90 minutes of conference-call barking and boardroom bargaining, with Dick Fuld (James Woods), Warren Buffett (Edward Asner) and Henry Paulson (William Hurt) using such terms of art as “moral hazard”, “shitbag mortgages”, “shit sandwich”, and so on.
Despite its oaky ambience and the convincingly stressed performances of its desirable cast, led by Hurt, Too Big to Fail proved too long to thrill, at times too dull to watch – the atmosphere of panic proving a dim stand-in for the urgency of drama. Besides, we know it all already.