Two incredible TV programmes about humanity
There’s at least two TV series currently available on iPlayer that are, in different ways, evidence that television can be astounding, informative and mind-changing. They are both about people, about society, about life.
The first is a series of lectures by Harvard’s Michael Sandel, who gave the BBC’s Reith Lectures a few years ago, which is when I first heard of him. However, he’s been giving lectures on justice and philosophy at Harvard for many years, where it is one of the most popular courses to take. It is not hard to see why. He raises a wide variety of questions – some controversial, some seemingly innocent – and uses them to bring in the main ideas of philosophers and thinkers who we’ve all heard of, but probably never tried to understand. But, unlike a lot of popular philosophy books who try and bring down the thinking of the great minds of history to our level, it really feels like Sandel is trying to bring us up to their level. He asks the audience to contribute, and whilst never demeaning the students’ contributions, he does challenge them and probe their answers.
The second series is “Human Planet“, which is one of the massive documentary series that is usally presented by David Attenborough. Big sweeping pictures of the globe spinning into view make up the title art, large, lush landscapes, dramatic music – all the usual ingredients of the BBC Natural History department. Except this is anthropology. It’s about people. About people who somehow live in dramatic, dangerous places; people who find food, fuel and shelter in the wildernesses. Every episode has a number of astounding moments, whether it’s the diver who can slow his metabolism so much that he can stay underwater for over five minutes, and walk on the sea bed without weights. Or the mountain dwellers who survive by walking into sulphurous vents to harvest blocks of sulphur from cracks in a volcano. They go in and breathe sulphuric acid just to make a living. I think I’m astounded by the poverty but also the ingenuity; the hard work over generations in some cases that has allowed people to carve, not just a living, but a culture, where nature only grudgingly gives a toe-hold of survival. I’m astounded too by the camera work, the researchers who found the stories and the people; by the variety and size of this planet too. And it seems that there is a great deal of respect paid to the subjects of the series by the programme makers. Of course, each excerpt is presented as a little story, it is rather narrative driven. Dare I say it, this is one programme that justifies high definition, if not a whole cinema.
Either one of these programmes is worth the time to watch. The Justice series could easily be treated as a radio programme, a half hour of morals, ethics and dilemmas while you cook dinner. Then a luxurious hour after dinner, with the Human Planet. There. That’s the weekend dinner plan sorted.
Except on Saturdays, the only thing to cook dinner to is Craig Charles’ Funk and Soul Show on 6music. The Only Thing.