Recently, I watched a pair of films on BBC Four presented by Adam Nicolson. In The Last Seabird Summer? he took us to the Shiant islands in the Outer Hebrides, given to him on his 21st birthday by his father, which he said ‘have been the most important thing in my life’. Every spring sees the phenomenal spectacle of a sky thick with tens of thousands of puffins, guillemots and razorbills as they arrive on the Shiants from far out in the North Atlantic to breed.
But there’s a crisis that threatens to end this remarkable show: although the numbers on the Shiants are holding up, in the last fifteen years in Scotland alone, 40 per cent of the seabird population has been lost. In The Last Seabird Summer? Nicolson explored the reasons why this is happening, and how in places like the Shiants there has been long history of dependence on seabirds: thousands of years of collecting eggs and hunting the birds for meat, oil and feathers.
Watching the programmes, I was reminded that for some time there had been a copy of Adam Nicolson’s book Sea Room in the house, in which he told the story of how he inherited the Shiants from his father, his love for these lonely, uninhabited islands, and his exploration of their geology and history, and of the lives of the people who once lived and made their living on these remote islands. I decided to read Sea Room. Continue reading “Adam Nicolson, the Shiant Isles and the crisis in seabird populations”
A couple of weekends ago in The Observer, there was an article, 50 documentaries you need to see, introduced by Nick Fraser, editor of the BBC’s Storyville. The following night the Storyville slot on BBC Four featured an outstanding documentary concerned with history, guilt and justice directed by David Evans in which human rights lawyer Philippe Sands – whose family, all but one, were Jews murdered by Nazis at Lviv – accompanied the sons of two prominent Nazi leaders on a journey across Europe and into the darkness of the past shared by all three men. Continue reading “My Nazi Legacy: official justice and moral judgement”
Phew! Topics can’t get any bigger than this. On BBC Four this past fortnight, in The Beginning and the End of the Universe, the ever-lucid Jim Al-Khalili tackled two cosmic questions: how did the universe begin, and how will it end? I’ve written here before about my admiration for Al-Khalili’s ability to explain clearly and with elegance very difficult, abstract concepts (at least for a non-scientist) without ever dumbing-down. In these two documentaries he told the very human – and gripping – story of the scientists, both men and women, who in the last hundred years have succeeded in boggling our minds with concepts like the Big Bang, dark matter, and dark energy, as well as scientific tools such as redshift, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, and gravitational lensing. Continue reading “Jim Al-Khalili ponders the beginning and the end of the universe”
What thou lov’st well shall not be reft from thee;
What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage.
– Ezra Pound
When Islamic State captured the Unesco world heritage site of ancient Palmyra in May last year and then proceeded to destroy antiquities such as the Temple of Bel, a wave of revulsion swept across the world. But in the last few years those of us who have been horrified each time ISIS has wiped another ancient artefact from the face of the earth have, in the next moment, asked ourselves why we should mourn the loss of a building or stone carving when so many human beings have lost their lives in the conflicts that have devastated Syria and Iraq.
The dilemma of whether it can be appropriate to mourn the loss of material objects when human beings are suffering and dying was confronted in a superb BBC Radio 4 series broadcast in the past two weeks. The Museum of Lost Objects traced the histories of ten antiquities or cultural sites that have been destroyed or looted in Iraq and Syria. Continue reading “The Museum of Lost Objects: radio series documenting an assault on humanity”
All through the autumn I was gripped by the brilliant second season of Fargo as it went out on Channel 4. The body count by the end was colossal, but the strength of the writing never left you in any doubt about the cost of all the killing, while the black humour and post-modern wit constantly brought a smile to my face – only for it to be quickly wiped away by the next murder.
So when I got an email from Curzon Home Cinema, inviting me to take a look at Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter, a film about a young Japanese woman who is obsessed with locating the case of money buried in final scene of the Coen brothers’ original film, I was ready for it. Watching it, I had the curious sensation that I was seeing an epilogue to season two as Kumiko, the main character, forms the disastrously wrong idea that the Coen brothers’ film is real: it does, after all, start out with the words ‘This is a true story’. Continue reading “Kumiko, Fargo and what is real and what is not”
Thanks to historian Amanda Vickery and Radio 3 presenter Tom Service for an outstanding documentary on BBC 2 last night in which they told the story of the siege of Leningrad and the symphony that Dmitri Shostakovich began to compose while working as a fireman during the German blockade and bombardment. Completed after his evacuation and dedicated to the besieged city, a group of starving musicians who could barely carry their instruments assembled to perform the Seventh Symphony there on 9 August 1942. It’s one of the great stories of human endurance and of the power of music as a symbol of resistance and humanity. The film truly did it justice. Continue reading “Leningrad and the Orchestra That Defied Hitler: BBC at its best”
Alan Yentob’s film for the BBC’s Imagine strand last week made a powerful case for Anthony Gormley being one of the most original and profound of British artists at work today. In Antony Gormley: Being Human, Alan Yentob followed the sculptor to recent exhibitions of his work in Paris and Florence, and explored the influences that have shaped his life and work. Continue reading “Antony Gormley: Being Human”