Metamorpheus (Sunday 8.15 BBC2) is a rarity that’s welcome for more than one reason. Firstly, it’s concerned with Greek mythology, a subject that doesn’t surface much on television these days outside quiz shows. Secondly, it crosses genre boundaries: a history/travel documentary in which Oxford classics Prof. Oliver Taplin explores the Orpheus legend in the landscapes of Bulgaria (Thrace in ancient times), northern Greece and Lesbos. Directed by Peter Symes, the film has a prologue and epilogue in verse by poet Tony Harrison, specially composed music by Richard Blackford – and a floating Orphic head and lyre reminding us, in Harrison’s words, of "the powerless power of poetry". Harrison's final lines, "I think it needs the ancient scream / to pierce the shells of academe / to remind them all our poems start / in the scream of Orpheus torn apart" may strike a chord somewhere – although, as exemplified by an amiable guy like Taplin, classics departments these days are perhaps less hard-shelled than other academic areas. Not to be missed - this may be the only time the obscure third-century BC poet Phanocles has ever got a mention on mainstream television.
(All times pm unless stated)
FRIDAY December 15
In Search of the Black Madonna (11.00 am R4). Bonnie Greer wonders about the power of "Black Madonna" icons in Europe from medieval times on. First of two programmes.
Culture Fix (11.30 am BBC Knowledge, also 1.30, 4.30, 7.30, 10.30). On kitsch.
The Message (4.30 R4). Do focus groups kill vision?
Life Story (8.05 World Service, repeated Sat 2.05 am). The finds in the 600-million-year-old Burgess Shale of Canada. Second programme (of four) on the fossil evidence of evolution, with Martin Redfern. Listen to » Life Story online.
Great Expectations (9.00 UK Drama). A reshowing for Tony Marchant’s dark 1999 adaptation of the Dickens classic.
» Conquistadors (9.00 BBC2; 9.30 in Wales). "All the World is Human". Final programme in Michael Wood’s watchable series starts with Cabeza de Vaca’s unsuccessful expedition to Florida, but returns to Spain to recount the 1550 debate in Valladolid between Las Casas and Sepulveda on the rights of native peoples in the New World – in Wood’s words, the first stirrings of the idea of "the globalisation of justice".
» Night Waves (9.30 R3). Contrasting Shakespeare productions reviewed. Plus the first of a series of foreign fiction recommendations, beginning with Christopher Hope on Ivan Bunin, Russian short story writer.
» Meetings with Remarkable Trees (9.50 BBC2; 10.20 in Wales). The Dorchester plane. (That’s the London hotel, not the Dorset town.) Last in series.
The Last Neanderthal (10.00 National Geographic). Human origins again.
SATURDAY December 16
» The Sky at Night (11.55 am BBC2). Repeat from late last Sunday of programme featuring NASA astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman on observing from space.
The Real Helen Keller (1.00 C4). How much was Keller (1880-1968) misrepresented by the contemporary media and how did she use them?
Scene by Scene with Janet Leigh (1.20 BBC2). Obscurely placed occasional (but usually enlightening) series returns with Mark Cousins interviewing Janet Leigh, now in her 70s. Two of her lesser films follow: Holiday Affair (1949) and The Black Shield of Falworth (1954); the important thing is that the film she starred in with Orson Welles and Charlton Heston, Touch of Evil , is being shown on Sunday, and that a documentary about the making of it, Reconstructing Evil , is at 12.55 am on BBC2 tonight.
The Medieval Ball (2.30 R4). What Islamic mapmakers did for medieval (Western) cartography. Terry Jones’s series continues.
Call Me Madam (6.05 BBC2). Film portrait of Betty Boothroyd, just-retired House of Commons speaker.
» Correspondent : To Kill a Stranger (6.55 BBC2). On ETA’s return to violence.
» To the Ends of the Earth : Dreaming on Desolation Island (7.00 C4). Matthew Parris spends some time on the bleak remoteness of Kerguelen in the Indian Ocean.
» The House Detectives (7.40 BBC2). Last of excellent history-on-a-small-scale series visits a Regency house on the Brighton seafront.
My Father (8.00 C4). The last conversation between Lord Runcie, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and his son James, filmed a few weeks before his death.
Secrets of the Ancients (8.10 BBC2). The Hanging Gardens of Babylon: how were they irrigated? (repeat).
Ghosts (12 midnight, repeated Sunday 5.00 pm World Service). Ibsen’s play in an adaptation by Doug Lucie heard on Radio 3 a couple of weeks ago.
SUNDAY December 17
Two Thousand Years (10.30 am ITV). Revised repeats of Melvyn Bragg’s history-of-Christianity series, first shown from April last year, reaches episode two: the second century AD. (The generally weaker discussion element of the original series has been cut from the documentary in this revision.)
» Music Matters (12.15 R3). Political composers; plus Michael Kaiser’s reflections on running an opera house.
Writing Poetry (4.30 R4). Kit Wright, Sophie Hannah and Andrew Motion on humour in poetry.
Dumb and Dumber? (4.55 C4). Discussion based on the assumption that sweeping generalisations can be made about the stupidity (or not) of present-day culture. Chaired by Alain de Botton and including Norman Lebrecht (who is not on Radio 3 this week) plus Big Brother creator Peter Bazalgette.
Natural World: Bower Birds (5.55 BBC2). David Attenborough in the highlands of New Guinea.
» Antiques Roadshow (6.05 BBC1) comes from Birmingham University.
The Battle for the Euro (7.25 BBC2). The inside stories of the British campaigns for and against the common currency.
Metamorpheus (8.15 BBC2). See Pick of the week at the top of the page.
» Behold the Man (8.00 R2). Part five, "Jesus the Sacrifice".
Hitler’s Henchmen: Goebbels (8.00 C5). Documentary, with plenty of old newsreel and eye-witness testimony, about the Nazi propagandist. Made for the German TV station » ZDF , it has a copyright date of 1996, when it also seems to have been shown in Australia in an English-language version.
» Sunday Play (9.00 R3). David Hare’s The Judas Kiss , the one about Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. With Simon Callow as Wilde.
Kanzi (10. 00 National Geographic). Second (of two) about the bonobo apes of the Georgia State University » Language Research Center .
The South Bank Show (10.45 ITV). A "stylised, dreamlike narrative" featuring British artist Marc Quinn’s creative subconscious, and directed by pop specialist Gerry Fox.
MONDAY December 18
» Composer of the Week (9.00 am R3 and rest of week) is Schubert.
Random Edition (11.00 am R4). The Strand Magazine for Christmas 1897: Peter Snow consults Chris Willis of Birkbeck and others about the magazine’s readership.
» The West (11.10 am BBC2, also Tues 11.15 am, Wed and Thurs 11.00 am, Fri 10.50 am). Re-showings of the 1996 Ken Burns series about the North American West, made for PBS in America and first seen here two years ago. (See also this Thursday’s Night Waves for more on the subject).
Fantastic Tales (3.30 R4 and for rest of week). A series of classic European stories "exploring the weird and the wonderful" begin with Hans Christian Andersen’s The Shadow , read by Peter Capaldi.
» Space Detectives (3.55 BBC1). Final programme in children’s series ponders the future of space exploration.
Saints and Sinners (6.00 History Channel, also rest of week) Re-run of history of Papacy series.
The Business of the Arts (8.00 R4). New forms of patronage examined by Kate Mosse.
Sir William Glock Memorial Concert (7.30 R3). Live concert in memory of the influential BBC Controller of Music (a post that no longer exists), with music by Boulez, Haydn, Gerhard and others. With two Twenty Minutes programmes in the intervals (8.00 and 8.55 R3) reflecting on Glock’s impact and rebroadcasting one of his radio talks.
University Challenge (8.00 BBC2). Sheffield Hallam vs. Warwick.
» Animal ER (8.30 C5). A sick shire horse, a pig with a tumour and a collie that cannot walk – another week at the Royal Veterinary College.
» Meet the Ancestors (8.30 BBC2). Repeat of the episode about Spitalfields (a new series starts in January).
» Andes to Amazon (9.00 BBC2). "Penguin Shores" – from Patagonia northwards on the Humboldt Current to the Galapagos.
» Animals that Changed the World (9.00 R4). Animal carriers of disease.
Cutting Edge: A Very British Christmas (9.00 C4). Documentary about what Christmas means to people "from turkey farmers to Samaritans".
» Castaway 2000 (9.00 BBC1, also Tuesday 9.05). Almost the final glimpses of life of the artificially constructed community on the Hebridean island of Taransay. Is Peter, the university lecturer, becoming more tolerable? (The last Castaway programme will be on New Year’s Eve, I think.)
» Trouble at the Big Top (12.30 am BBC2, also Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, same time). Re-runs of the revealing series about the Millennium Dome project, from its early days to the opening last New Year’s Eve. These will be followed by Death of the Dome (Friday Dec 22, 9.00 BBC2), which promises to analyse what went wrong.
TUESDAY December 19
The Snowman (9.30 am R4). Are snowmen pagan survivals? This and other questions considered by experts in folklore, theology, philosophy …
The Civil War: The Cause (10.00 am History Channel, and for rest of week). Another reshowing of Ken Burns’s classic series about the American Civil War starts here. (It’s in one-hour chunks, so it may not be the full version.)
Christmas Story – Myth or History? (11.00 am R4). More questions, more answers from ( inter alios ) classicist Peter Gandy, theologian Elaine Storkey, astronomer Simon Mitton.
» The West : Empire Upon Trails (11.15 am BBC2). Ken Burns’s series about the North American West, part two (1806–1848).
Fantastic Tales (3.30 R4). Autumn Sorcery by Joseph von Eichendorff, read by Jamie Glover.
» Twenty Minutes (8.00 R3). On Alan Bush, Marxist composer, who was born 100 years ago.
Case Notes (9.00 R4). Health precautions for travellers.
Five Steps to Tyranny (9.00 BBC2). Are ordinary people capable of carrying out horrific atrocities? Documentary featuring experiments in social psychology that suggest the answer is 'Yes', plus the expert comments of psychologists Philip Zimbardo and Mark Levine, human rights specialists and others.
Royal Portraits (10.00 ITV). The Queen Mother.
Faces of Islam (11.25 BBC1; 11.55 in N. Ireland, Scotland, 12.05 am in Wales). Sultan Ghalib Al-Qu’aiti.
WEDNESDAY December 20
Truman (9.25 am BBC2, also Thurs 9.15 am, Friday 9.00 am ). Three-part profile of former US president.
The Civil War: Traitors and Patriots (10.00 am History Channel) and » The West : Speck of the Future (11.00 am). Ken Burns from 1990 and 1996, on the American Civil War (part two) and the frontier (part three) respectively.
The Demon Drink (11.00 am R4). Amanda Foreman explores the history of the temperance movement (repeat).
Fantastic Tales (3.30 R4). The Holes in the Mask by Jean Lorrain, read by Simon Russell Beale.
Thinking Allowed (4.00 R4). Laurie Taylor talking about stalking with fellow sociologists (names not revealed).
» Tomorrow’s World (7.00 BBC1). A "space special", including a look at the International Space Station project.
Land of Penguins (7.30 C5). Wildlife documentary from the Falklands.
Driving Mum Crazy (8.30 C5). "Karl’s Story" – an 11-year-old with ADHD and daily doses of Ritalin.
Poisoned (8.30 C4). "Deadly Medicine". Last in series.
A Christmas Carol (9.00 ITV). A long way from the Dickens original, this stars Ross Kemp as "Eddie Scrooge, a loan shark" in a present-day version by Peter Bowker. For more fidelity to the Dickens spirit, wait for the version starring Patrick Stewart that’s on C4 next week.
Connect (9.00 R4). Can technology offer a solution to the shortage of clean drinking water in the developing world?
» Night Waves (9.30 R3). The meaning of community in modern culture.
Kirsty MacColl’s Cuba (10.00 R2). Start of eight part series on Cuban music.
THURSDAY December 21
» Routes of English (9.00 am R4). "Border Talk" – the border being Offa’s Dyke. Melvyn Bragg listens to the people of Oswestry.
Truman (9.15 am BBC2). Part two of presidential biography.
The Civil War: A Very Bloody Affair (10.00 am History Channel) and » The West : Death Runs Riot (11.00 am). Re-showings of the 1990 Ken Burns series about American Civil War and his 1996 one on the North American frontier continue.
» Crossing Continents (11.00 am R4). Is Jordan becoming less stable?
EUtopia (11.30 am, also 1.30, 3.30, 5.30, 7.30 BBC Knowledge). "The United States of Europe", an episode (already shown on BBC2) from the documentary series that seems to be intended as a kind of finale, exploring themes of national identity – from Basques, Cornishmen, a German learning Irish, a Somali-born Turin councillor, Greeks, Danes … too many for one 30-minute documentary.
Fantastic Tales (3.30 R4). Sheridan Le Fanu’s The Ghost and the Bonesetter , read by Sean Barrett.
The Material World (4.30 R4). The acoustics of churches and other places where singers sing. With the expertise of David Howard (University of York) and Trevor Cox (Salford University).
Copyrights and Wrongs (8.00 R4). Peter Day investigates the current state of copyright.
Analysis (8.30 R4). "Independent" inquiries and consultants – how democratic are they? David Walker reports.
Hard Times (9.00 UK Drama). Dickens adaptation from 1994, starring Alan Bates, Bob Peck etc. Not, alas, the classic 1977 Granada adaptation by Arthur Hopcraft – is that even available? Mail me !
» Equinox : The Science of Crime (9.00 C4). "Cybercops" – last in this trilogy is about how corporations are fighting computer fraud, etc. The fact that this is directed by Witold Starecki might suggest we’ll get a more stylish programme than usual.
» Night Waves (10.00 R3). The mythology of the American frontier.