Daytime TV: Back from the dead

Reincarnation is a theme of Gary Day's viewing over the new year, from former lives to world religions

January 8, 2009

Call no man happy until he's dead." Sophocles wouldn't have said that if he could have seen adverts for Sofa World, which always appear at this time of year. If you want to witness joy in this world, then behold the settee. Never in the field of human design has so much delight been owed by so many to so few.

Young and old can barely contain their bliss as they sit, recline, stretch or bounce on the latest model. It's not the birth of Christ we celebrate at Christmas, it's the discount offered on a sectional sofa in brown or cream.

But we could only watch everyone else having fun. Whose idea was it, exactly, to rent a cottage in freezing Wiltshire? From the depths of an old couch we stared in disbelief as Tony Robinson was regressed back to a former life (Tony Robinson and the Medieval Reincarnation, Channel 4, New Year's Eve 9pm). "Who are you?" asked his soft-spoken hypnotist. "Marshal Cranley," Tony replied. No, Tony, you're not. You're Baldrick from Black Adder, and this programme is about as sensible as of one of your "cunning plans".

Tony and science journalist Becky McCall were investigating a group of people who claimed that they had been persecuted as Cathars in a previous life. But they were faced with some serious obstacles, the biggest being that all these people are now dead, as is the psychiatrist, Arthur Guirdham, to whom they told their stories.

That didn't matter to Tony, though. What counted was that their recollections matched the historical record. So it must all be true. Becky tried to play Scully to Tony's Mulder, but her heart wasn't really in it. A little digging would have revealed that the ringleader of this group, a certain "Mrs Smith", could have got her information from Zoe Oldenbourg's book Massacre at Montsegur: A History of the Albigensian Crusade, published just a few years before she approached Guirdham with her tales of persecution. The truth is out there, but Tony and Becky will never find it. They both want to believe too much.

If only Jonathan Creek (BBC One, New Year's Day 9pm) had been on their team. But he was too busy trying to work out why people who spent the night in the attic room of an old mansion called Metropolis weren't seen at breakfast or indeed ever again. It turned out that the original owner had been an anti-Semite who had so constructed the en suite that when his Jewish guest took a bath he would be tipped into a tank full of water contained in a false room. Sometimes it is just easier to believe in the supernatural explanation for things.

Judy Parfitt, who had not been a very good mother to Arthur Clennam in Little Dorrit, found herself reincarnated as Mrs Gessler to see if she could do a better job this time round. Alas, no. Her devotion to her son only succeeded in turning him into a murderer. Light relief was on hand in the form of Candy Mountains, a porn star whose implants exploded. If this one-off special had a message, it was beware the seductive power of manufactured illusion.

It is a lesson that Peter Owen Jones is unlikely to heed, at least on the evidence of the first programme in his eight-part series, Around the World in 80 Faiths (BBC Two, Friday 9pm). Despite showing how the cult of "John Frum" in Tanna arose, Pete clings to the belief that Jesus is man and God. Well, he is an Anglican vicar - with a dash of hippy, which means that his parishioners can be as much in search of him as he is of himself.

But it was Pete's Christian principles that made him slightly wary of joining in the celebrations of the urban witches of Sydney. The fact that he had to dance naked with some young women was definitely not a factor in his decision to take part in the ceremony, otherwise he would have said so.

Pete had only time to cover nine religions in the opening episode but maybe he will get a move on in the coming weeks. His basic contention was that major religions were refracted through local customs and beliefs. And he was cool with that. The only time he was disappointed was when he encountered some Aborigines who believed in the Bible. That deprived him of the opportunity to show how much he respected their traditions.

Back on Earth, Whitney is looking for her mum in EastEnders. So is Amy, who is Ronnie's daughter, but Ronnie thinks her daughter's dead because she was adopted at birth. Meanwhile Tanya is on trial for trying, yet again, to kill Max, but really it was her daughter. And that's not the half of it. Maybe Sophocles was right after all.

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