As someone who believes they suffer from some kind of number dyslexia – as opposed to just being a blithering simpleton, a possibility I refuse to countenance – I always approach mathematical matters with caution, if not outright apprehension.
So it was with The Code, a brain-tickling new series in which Professor Marcus du Sautoy shows how numerical systems – some remarkably simple, others so complicated they virtually defy logic – underpin every thing in existence. Sounds daunting? Not to worry: resembling a cross between Brian Eno and a subdued Johnny Ball, du Sautoy is a reassuring guide who never patronises his audience, but never vaults ahead of them either.
His aim is to make sense of the apparent randomness of the natural world through the solid consistency of mathematics, and he does so with a sense of wonder one rarely associates with this subject.
Artfully assembled, the programme takes him to rural Alabama, where prime number patterns ensure the continued existence of a breed of insect that only emerges from beneath the ground every 13 years, to ancient stone circles and fish yards to show that pi is all around us (and so the feeling goes), and to an observatory high in the Alps that looks like something from the cover of an Isaac Asimov novel. Naturally, here he illustrates how numbers govern the movement of the stars themselves.
It's an interesting essay, accessible even to a number numbskull such as myself, although I must admit that some of the more abstract, seemingly far-out revelations – if numbers can, like people, be negative and irrational, how can we trust them? – curdled my melon slightly.
Also, with a playful nod to Dan Brown (the only kind of nod you should ever afford him), du Sautoy spends much of his time in cathedrals whispering intently about the all-pervasive power of his mysterious code – to such an extent that the entire concept begins to sound disturbing rather than comforting, as though the world is in the grip of a sinister conspiracy governed by a corrupt conglomerate: Numbers International. I appreciate, however, that my own fears and prejudices may be at play here. Bloody liberal media.
Of all the revolutions that unfolded during the turbulent 1960s, one of the most important yet oft overlooked was the invention of the lightweight hand-held film camera. Previously hidebound by cumbersome equipment, documentary filmmakers suddenly found themselves free to capture the immediacy of life. And so cinema verit and fly-on-the-wall were born.
In The Camera That Changed the World, pioneering documentarians including DA Pennebaker and Albert Maysles – who went on to create documentary milestones such as Dylan tour movie Don't Look Back and the astonishing Grey Gardens respectively – take us back to 1960, a flashpoint year in the history of filmmaking.
Simultaneously devised in France and the US through a combination of determination and genius feats of engineering, the hand-held camera was initially used to make remarkably intimate films about JFK, the civil rights struggle and the everyday lives of ordinary Parisians. This is a fascinating guide to its origins.
I recently wrote to television to ask it, in polite yet vigorous terms, to cease making whimsical comedy-dramas set in idealised northern towns which promulgate the tired view that Britain is populated entirely by loveable eccentrics and pantomime villains. Did it listen? Did it 'eck as like.
Or perhaps Sugartown was already in the can by the time my urgent missive arrived, and that seeing as the BBC don't appear to have much faith in it – shunting it out almost apologetically at the unedifying slot of 10:25pm on a Sunday – this will be the last programme of its type we shall ever see, paving way for a new golden dawn where populist drama isn't a euphemism for "bland, cosy, unambitious nothingness starring a man in a
One can but hopelessly dream.
Set in a fictional seaside town financially supported by the local rock factory (hence the title), and populated by the likes of Sue Johnston doing her daffy yet dependable older woman act, it is pitched somewhere between Victoria Wood and an Ealing comedy, but without the wit or spark of either.
You know how it goes: unscrupulous entrepreneur threatens to close the factory, forcing the plucky locals to fight back in a variety of unamusing ways. That their principle method of rebellion is the feel-good factor of dance should also come as no surprise to you.
What may startle you slightly, however, is the villain's stewardship of a mini Playboy club, which is of course precisely the sort of establishment you'd find in a nowhere town where nearly every resident is an OAP. Yes, I know it's not a Ken Loach film, but you can only suspend your disbelief so much.
Featuring a mayor who arrives to work on a bicycle wearing full ceremonial attire – presumably as a concession to those who wish to believe that Trumpton was a documentary – and a character seemingly intended to illustrate the lighter side of bipolar disorder, Sugartown succeeds neither as comedy nor drama.
Pastel-coloured in sugary shades of CBBC, it should be studiously avoided if you're lactose intolerant or simply intolerant of vacuous entertainment.
Wednesday, BBC2, 9pm
THE CAMERA THAT CHANGED THE WORLD
Tuesday, BBC 4, 9pm
Tomorrow, BBC1, 10:25pm
• This article was originally published in The Scotsman Magazine on Saturday 23 July 2011