Daytime TV: Snap, cackle, pop

With high expectations for the credible Devil's Whore, Gary Day attempts to avoid a Spanish flu outbreak

November 27, 2008

One of the great tragedies of the modern world is that I am unable to view I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! (ITV1) on Catch Up through my TV service provider. Those who died fighting for our freedoms would be appalled if they knew we couldn't watch Esther Rantzen eating a crocodile's penis whenever we wanted to.

Indeed liberty is a minor theme in The Devil's Whore (Channel 4, Wednesday 9pm), Peter Flannery's four-part drama about the English Civil War. So, too, is religion. And where's that first of all causes, the rise of the middle class? But this is only the first episode so we can't expect too much.

History isn't what happened, it's what we make up from what happened, and Flannery freely admits that his central character, Angelica Fanshawe (played by the cherubic Andrea Riseborough), didn't exist. But that does not stop her from being a credible creation. Even when she sees the devil standing on a tree with his long tongue almost touching the ground.

This is the world turned upside down from a woman's point of view. Angelica thinks the king should listen to the people's grievances, but her husband, Harry, silences her. "It's not for you to think," he admonishes - his words a reminder that the arguments about freedom did not apply to women. "Will you come to me tonight?" asks Angelica. "Aye," replies her spouse. "If you will be silent." Talking in bed ought to be easiest, but not in that household.

The mercenary Edward Sexby, played by John Simm, opens his mouth only to initiate listeners into the way of the sword. "Do not draw your blade," he whispers to two urchins, "unless you be certain of the day." They ignore him, but Sexby persists. "Do not attack your enemy's house until he is gone from it." They stare at him. As well they might with that scar.

The court scenes look like a Van Dyck come to life. But beneath the splendour - the costumes, the jewellery and the hair - is a sense of melancholy, even menace. "Can you smell it?" asks Sexby. "It's on the wind."

So, if the team were not very careful, would be H191, otherwise known as Spanish flu, which killed 15 million people in 1919 by making them drown in their own mucus (In Search of Spanish Flu, BBC Four, Thursday 8.30pm). Another outbreak is imminent, says Professor John Oxford, who is in Yorkshire to oversee the exhumation of Sir Mark Sykes.

This soldier, diplomat, politician and all-round good egg helped draw up the boundaries of the Middle East and now he's helping to find a cure for the disease that killed him and so many others.

The team chose Sir Mark because he was one of the few buried in a lead-lined coffin, which preserves a corpse so well you can still see the colour of the eyes.

Disaster! The grave itself was not brick-lined, the water table had risen, and the coffin had split along the seam. The men with spades may have been exposed to the virus. It spreads so quickly you could be dead by the time you read these words.

Relief! The damage was not as bad as imagined, and there was enough left of Sir Mark to take samples for analysis. "Is that the skull?" asked grandson Sir Tatton Sykes, watching the proceedings on a monitor. "Yes," replied the professor. "And there's some lung."

And there was Ian Hislop talking about the 1963 Beeching report (Ian Hislop Goes Off the Rails, BBC Two, Thursday 8pm), which recommended the closure of 3,000 stations and the tearing up of 4,000 miles of track.

Edward Thomas wrote a gentle poem about a locomotive drawing up at Adlestrop. No train stops there now; no passenger will hear, from the carriage window, a blackbird singing close by.

But this was no exercise in nostalgia. A red-scarfed Ian pointed out that complaints about high fares, dirty carriages and late trains were a constant of rail travel. And Beeching, who looked like a B-movie heavy, was merely facing up to the financial mess the railways were in. Despite recruiting Tony Hancock, Britain's then-favourite comic, to sugar the pill, Beeching's proposals went down like a lead balloon.

Which, coincidentally, is the title of Jack Dee's sitcom, now in its third series (BBC Two, Thursday 10pm). And it couldn't be better named. Much more of this and Jack will find himself relegated to sharing a crocodile's penis with Esther, which should be fun if it's still attached to the owner.

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