Daytime TV: Fighting fit

Gary Day sings an ode to manliness, from 11th-century swordplay to 21st-century six-packs

May 28, 2009

Weddings. They never go quite right, do they? Just as the bride's father is about to offer the groom his daughter's shoe, a figure appears in the doorway. It is Ordgar. Oh dear, has someone forgotten to invite him? It would be an understandable oversight. His name means "spear-point", and he has the attitude to match. You imagine him to be more comfortable unseaming raiders from the knave to the chops than in making small talk with Auntie Ealfrith.

He has come to collect "weapon men". There's been a bit of bother about who should be king of England. It's all Edward the Confessor's fault because he named Harold Godwinson as heir, presumably forgetting he'd already promised the crown to William, Duke of Normandy, otherwise known as the Bastard, though say that to his face and you would lose your hands and feet.

The 11th century had no equivalent of Britain's Got Talent whereby the prospective monarchs could sing, dance or juggle axes before a panel and the winner would get the throne. If there had been such a programme, and it had included spelling, then Harald Hardrada, another claimant, would have been eliminated straightaway. A man who couldn't spell his own Christian name wouldn't have made a good ruler.

The tension took its toll. So much so that after five minutes everyone forgot their native tongue and started to speak in contemporary English. Here, surely, was an opportunity for a diplomatic solution. But no - it only meant each side could understand the insults they threw at each other before crossing swords. "Smash them in the face with your shield," Ordgar told his trembling recruits, "then slice their leg off."

1066: The Battle for Middle Earth (Channel 4, Monday 18 and Tuesday 19 May 9pm) was a dramatisation of one of the most extraordinary and significant years in British history. A map of England, as it then was, periodically filled the screen. It was green and brown, like a garden. A lawn may seem serene but there is carnage in the grass. The green woods around Fulford and Stamford Bridge rang not with birdsong but with the clash of steel.

Snorri was the Norse equivalent of Ordgar, but he dispatched his enemies more aesthetically; dodging an arrow and sending an axe spiralling into the archer's neck in one movement. How he ended up on the losing side, twice, is a mystery. Most of the violence was shown in its full brutality. A soldier was transfixed by a spear sheering into his chest. As it was yanked out, he vomited and fell over, legs going over his head. It looked comical. That was the worst part.

Our sympathies were with the Anglo-Saxons. They lived in Middle Earth, which, as readers of Tolkien will know, is the land of hobbits. The association confers on the Anglo-Saxons an undeserved innocence. They too were invaders, driving the Celts to the fringes of this island. But at least they had nice hairstyles. Those of the Normans were terrifying. No wonder they won the Battle of Hastings. Not, as it turns out, by brute force, but by trickery. History is the art of legerdemain. And for those who say we don't need to study the past, a statistic. A fifth of England is still owned by descendants of the Normans.

Tim Shaw wants a flat stomach. It is part of his quest to go from "Mr Blobby to Mr Buff" (Extreme Male Beauty, Channel 4, Thursday 21 May 10pm). One wonders what Ordgar would have made of him. Tim stands on a podium with other men while women drink champagne and comment on their waistlines. One blows raspberries on a round tummy, causing shrieks of laughter among her friends.

Tim tries bodybuilding. He is mentored by Steve, whose head looks like a small ball on top of a bigger ball. If it weren't for his pylon-shaped legs he would roll away. "Are you more of a man than me?" asks Tim. "Yeah," says Steve.

Tim wets himself trying to lift a tyre. Later he chirpily informs us that his new eating regime has caused him to have a more serious accident down below. Perhaps there's an easier way to lose weight. A Norman broadsword could probably remove a couple of extra pounds quite quickly. Yes, it might take Tim's head with it, but it's worth the risk.

Griff Rhys Jones spent an hour telling us Why Poetry Matters (BBC Two, Wednesday 20 May 9pm). There is nothing too high or too low for which a poet cannot find a rhyme. Even Tim's tum is graced by the iambic pentameter. The problem is that those most in need of poetry are those most likely to ignore it. Which suggests that poetry can make us better. Than the rapacious Normans, anyway.

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