It’s widely acknowledged that quality television (that’s quality with a capital ‘Q’) is a rare, near-endangered beast. The small screen, for all its many assets, frequently encourages the kind of torpid passivity that’s antithetical to anything of greater substance than a minor celebrity being outwitted by an oncoming wall. Informative television is, in particular, difficult to get right. It only really works when infused with a brimming fascination for the subject at hand. When done badly, it can resemble little more than the torturous tedium of a textbook transposed onto camera. A programme capable of educating entertainingly requires a sense of commitment, not only from the viewers but also from the show itself.
Over the last week, Channel 4 broadcasted Genius of Britain, a series of tremendously worthy documentaries, with the fairly ambitious remit of illuminating every aspect of British scientific history over four evenings (thus supposedly rendering all future scientific history documentaries irrelevant). In the context of an entire summer’s binge of Big Brother, a soaring paean to idiocy, this strategy of cramming such a monumental task into a single week seems suspiciously and unenthusiastically rushed. It is akin to stoically munching through broccoli first in a delicious meal in order to get it out of the way. It is dismissive and disrespectful of the topics covered in the program. In practice, it felt a little like watching the best part of BBC 4’s yearly output compressed into a single hour The last time such a huge amount of material was contracted into such a tiny space was the Big Bang (which, incidentally, they cover in about 10 minutes).
The producers assembled a veritable super group of academics and educators, including Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking and David Attenborough (although sadly no representatives were present from Brainiac: Science Abuse). Essentially, everyone who’s delivered a breathless monologue over footage of a petri dish or a piece of swirling cosmic debris in the last ten years made an appearance. However, the overcrowded narrative ultimately made a waste of this vast pool of talent. The series reduced them to indignity, showing them scrambling in competition for airtime, like a teaching faculty anxiously trying to sell their specialties in five minute slots.
The programme concludes on a bizarre and unwieldy attempt to wrap up all of science in one go through a vaguely terse tête-à-tête between Hawking and Dawkins (who somehow manages to look even less interested than a man with total paralysis). By far the best moment of their exchange is Hawking’s question, “One can’t help asking, why are you so obsessed with God?”, an unbelievably clumsy prod for Dawkins to launch into his obligatory performance of ‘mildly infuriated atheist’. It’s a bait to which he rises with gusto.
However, aside from watching a couple of esteemed scientists on the verge of bickering, Genius of Britain was, above all, remarkably unsatisfying, a victim of its own ludicrously overwhelming objective. The programme undoubtedly does feature some genuinely interesting titbits, but, of course, these brief moments of focus and depth only serve to make the sweeping nature of the majority of the show more frustrating. In attempting to celebrate science, it seems to have utterly rejected the patient and meticulous spirit that underpins the discipline. So, anyway, next time I’ll just review Come Dine With Me.