NASA: TRIUMPH AND TRAGEDY, BBC2 JACK THE RIPPER: TABLOID KILLER REVEALED, Five
THE historic Apollo space programme has been documented so often and in such detail, you would assume there was nothing new to say about it. Judging by the two-part documentary series Nasa: Triumph and Tragedy, you'd be right. And yet, despite the well-worn nature of the saga, when retold well – as it was here – it still has the ability to grip and amaze.
Showing as part of a series commemorating the 40th anniversary of the first Moon landing, this evocative documentary covered the programme's inaugural years, climaxing with the historic Apollo 11 expedition. Spurred on by JFK's audacious pledge to land US astronauts on the Moon before the decade's end, the Apollo team fought tooth and nail to get there ahead of them darn Russkies. As every schoolboy should know, it's a tale almost entirely gilded in triumph, the sole tragedy arising from a fire that incinerated three pilots during a test-and-training exercise in 1967.
Although we've seen it all before, the extensive footage filmed throughout those years never fails to give a tangible sense of the period, from the chain-smoking Nasa operatives in their Harry Palmer glasses, to the all-American astronauts and their elegantly coiffured wives waiting nervously at home.
Alisdair Simpson's eagerly whispered narration (by law, all documentaries about the Apollo missions must be narrated in tones of reverent awe, accompanied by triumphant orchestral music) was a mildly comical distraction, but the input from an impressive roster of forefront contributors was appropriately stellar. Only Neil Armstrong appeared to be phoning it in, but he can be forgiven for offering such practised recollections, since the poor man must have had to recount this story countless times during the past 40 years. If I were him, I'd just put my feet up and send a pre-recorded tape every time a film crew wanted to ask him about landing on the bleedin' Moon.
Solid as a Moon-rock, Nasa: Triumph and Tragedy did a fine job of elucidating the sheer goose-pimpling scale of the Apollo team's achievements, and the unimaginable risks and personal sacrifices required from the astronauts. Disappointingly, Five didn't schedule one of their frequent "Moon Landing Fakery: The Truth Revealed!" documentaries to coincide with this. They're always fun, although I must admit that when I watched one years ago, I became absolutely convinced that Armstrong and co were definitely pawns in an outrageous US government conspiracy (I was young, stupid and possibly slightly drunk at the time). Nowadays, of course, I know conspiracy theories are almost always bunkum. Sadly, the world just isn't as interesting as we'd like it to be.
There are so many outlandish theories surrounding the identity of Jack the Ripper, for instance, it's difficult to take any of them seriously. Until now! Not really, although Jack the Ripper: Tabloid Killer Revealed made a plausible case for the identity of the author of the infamous Dear Boss hoax letter. That bastion of journalistic integrity, Kelvin MacKenzie, fingered Fred Best, a lowly tabloid journalist, as the man responsible for writing it. The assertion, however, that Best was acting at the behest of his editor, the esteemed TP O'Connor, was mere conjecture, as is almost everything concerned with this eternal mystery.