A show of strength from humpback whales ensured that Ocean Giants got off to a fine start, while JK Rowling's great-grandfather wasn't the man she thought he was
Ocean Giants (BBC1) | iPlayer
Who Do You Think You Are (BBC1) | iPlayer
The Story of British Path�: the Birth of the News (BBC4) | iPlayer
Wilfred (BBC3) | iPlayer
Far be it from me to utter an unkindness against whales ? gentle, beloved stars of the BBC's new Sunday-night wildlife series Ocean Giants ? but they can be a bit lumbering. Even at speeds of up to 20mph (a fact narrator Stephen Fry announced as if it were the stuff of Hadron Colliders), it seemed to take hours to get them in and out of shot. Apart from the occasional eye or fin it was like waiting for a long, badly peeling shed to go past. All we needed now was the standard Bafta whale cliche (and what discerning viewer can watch one of those dramatic fishtails rising from a foamy sea without reaching for his harpoon?), also in slow motion ? and yes, we got one.
As you would expect, it was a scenic hour, with long views from the dazzling blue above and shorter ones from the murky blue below, mysterious and silent but for the imagined boomings of the deep or the scraping of a plaintive cello. Fry kept us apprised of whale tonnage. Why were they so big? he kept asking. One had a 9ft penis and testicles the size of a Fiat Punto. And why did the blue whale need a mouth like the Grand Canyon? (Was it, I wondered, to do with hoovering up krill? It was. This wasn't QI.)
But, my goodness, whales were big and to prove it there was a lovely shot of a diver hanging like a toy frogman in the water next to a 40-tonne humpback. But the old maxim about showing not telling was difficult to stick to. Every spring, said Fry, thousands of male humpbacks come to Hawaii to fight and mate. Well, I suppose so. Here they were, a half-dozen of them swishing about to the sound of drums in what Fry called "explosive shows of strength".
The amazing thing for me was how much humpback whales fighting look like humpback whales swimming. Yes, there was jostling and some bubble-blowing that might be considered provocative in some cultures, but whales aren't pitbulls. Didier, an enthusiastic French cameraman ("Humpbacks are mah favourite whels!"), was worried he might get killed by a swipe of one of those mighty tels, though worrying was as worrying as it got. At times, this seemed to be as much about cameramen ? Didier, tanned and snorkelled, a pale Scotsman called Doug, their passions and dreams, their war stories ? as whales. Did I just hear Stephen say Didier worked with Clouseau? Oh, Cousteau.
But who got the girl? I liked the way the female just raised a flipper out of the water as if summoning a waiter. Eventually she disappeared with one of the pursuing males, leaving the others to smooch sadly with one another, in what Fry described as a "slow-motion ballet". He told us no one had ever seen a humpback mating. And sure enough we didn't.
Having said that, there was action to be had (albeit in a clip Doug had prepared a decade earlier) with killer whales ? 10 tonnes of muscle and teeth circling a poor flat-footed barnacled grey whale and her fattened calf. This was more like it. Killer whales seem too fast and sleek ? too handsome and sharp-suited ? to be whales at all. But they were killers right enough, and the sea churned as advertised with the blood of innocents. Doug, I noticed, wisely kept out of it. This week: talking dolphins that can play Monopoly and look after your children for the weekend.
JK Rowling always gives the impression of someone struggling to come to terms with her good luck, vast wealth, philanthropic munificence and hard-won place in the cultural firmament ? as if to be caught smiling too much would be to dishonour the dark memories of being a single mother forced to write her wizard books in cafes because she couldn't afford coal. Who better, then, to enjoy the ducking stool of misery and triumph that is Who Do You Think You Are? It wasn't long before she was dewy-eyed over documents showing evidence that her French great-grandfather Louis (a waiter at the Savoy) had split up with her great-grandmother in 1911. It didn't seem an obvious tragedy. Maybe they didn't get on. And I couldn't help thinking ? with the surefire horrors of the Great War to come ? that JK might have peaked a little early, blubbing-wise, not least since Auntie Marian said Louis had been awarded the L�gion d'honneur, which presumably wasn't for his mastery of the cheeseboard.
Next stop the national archives in Paris. "This is incredible. It's actually? the Hogwarts library!" gushed JK, in case anyone was forgetting what the real story was here. But here we found Louis's L�gion d'honneur dossier, which revealed that he had lost an eye, a limb and seven teeth, transporting grenades to the front. JK's face began to crease? was she about to blow? No, it was just puzzlement: this Louis's handwriting was wrong; he had a different date of birth. (She might equally have marvelled at how this half-blind Louis with an arm or leg missing sailed back into his job at the Savoy and, indeed, was head wine waiter by 1921.) No, this wasn't him. But how did this explain the impressive-looking star-shaped medal that Auntie Marian had kept in the family treasure box? JK popped across town to see a rugged French captain at the military archives. Ah yes, he told her ? that was a trade union badge.
Frankly, JK (who was now obliged to tell the captain that she happened to have a L�gion d'honneur herself ? a real one) didn't seem too disappointed. But then ? as if by the stroke of a Hollywood screenwriter's pen ? it turned out that Louis was a war hero after all, with a Croix de Guerre for his courage in holding a small border town and shooting Germans. Not bad for someone who, it transpired, was an almost untrained member of France's Home Guard. Oh my God, said JK, now ready to break out some serious Kleenex. It was an outcome barely bettered by the later discovery that Louis had been born the son of a poor struggling single mother up against the world but who had survived with dignity and prospered. Now who did that remind her of?
It was a difficult week to avoid Frenchmen. More of them turned up in The Story of British Path� ? the cinema newsreel company set up by two brothers in Paris and brought to London 100 years ago. Actually, if you turned the sound down it could have been the story of hats ? bowlers, trilbys, turbans, cloth caps, boaters, bonnets, pith helmets ? hats doffed, hats thrown in the air by the great crowds that seemed to be everywhere during most of the 20th century. In Path�'s first exciting scoop in 1911, Winston Churchill, then the home secretary, was minded to wear a silk top hat to the Sidney Street siege, where he took it upon himself to direct police operations against armed Latvian robbers holed up in a jeweller's shop (it included holding back the fire brigade and wisely letting the thieves burn to death when the building went up in flames). Other familiar milestones were here: Emily Davison being run over by the king's horse, Chamberlain waving his piece of paper, bodies piled high at Belsen, the Nuremberg trials ? along with the voice of Bob Danvers-Walker, pageantry, society weddings, aeroplanes crashing, seaside outings and cup finals.
But there was war, too, providing cheery reporters with the opportunity to get blown up but also fly the flag. The tone ? reflecting a climate in which turning defeat to victory was a moral duty ? was rarely less than upbeat. These were the roots of broadcast journalism but Path�'s days were numbered with the coming of TV, whose live bulletins would soon confine the newsreels to showing clips of scantily dressed dollybirds washing cars or dogs climbing trees.
Speaking of dogs, I can't say I was instantly attracted by the premise of BBC3's unusual new late-night comedy Wilfred, which stars Elijah Wood as a clinically depressed ex-lawyer who perceives his new neighbour's dog as an Australian guy in a dog costume. And yet, weirdly, by the end of episode one, seeing these new buddies hanging out ? watching a DVD together, discussing girls, smoking weed from a bong ? didn't seem odd at all. It's some trick to pull off, if not award-winningly funny.