On TV lately – 3 – great documentaries


That’s from The Great Wall of China: The Hidden Story (2014) – a four-part documentary that finished on SBS last Sunday. I was impressed, though I do see what this reviewer is driving at:

Who’d have thought it? The “secret” in Secret History: The Great Wall of China – the Hidden Story (Channel 4) was sticky rice. Because, according to the documentary, that was the unlikely ingredient ancient builders mixed into their mortar to help the wall last for generations.

Historians have long wondered how the mortar in the wall held up so well. Now, the programme announced, scientists had found the secret: three per cent of sticky rice in the mixture.

This is pretty surprising, so it probably justifies the description, in commentary, of “extraordinary new scientific research”. But that was one of the more low-key superlatives in a programme that kept hammering them home.

The producers did not seem satisfied that “The Great Wall of China” already suggests something pretty impressive. So, the wall was “one of the most extraordinary feats of engineering in history”. It was “the most iconic man-made structure on the planet”. Later, “the world’s greatest megastructure”. Then, slightly bizarrely, “a tremendous piece of hardware”. It was “part of the world’s geography”. “One of history’s most iconic structures”. And it went on. People didn’t just find things out, they discovered “one of the wall’s greatest secrets” or made an “amazing discovery”. It was as if the programme makers felt we had to be convinced.

But at least we also had the genial knowledge of William Lindesay, who has walked the wall’s length, and the rather more manic company of military historian Mike Loades, who showed us how bombs were dropped from the wall on to attacking forces and even rode a horse and fired arrows to show us what attacking forces would do…

Yes, sticky rice in the mortar.

SBS has quite a bit to offer this year. One local production I am rather dreading is:

Hanson: The Years that Shook Australia As the 90s most divisive politician, Pauline Hanson is the woman we love to hate: the blue collar battler who said what some Australians were thinking, and was destroyed for it. Hanson has made an indelible mark on the racism debate. Twenty years after her maiden speech this feature documentary, produced by CJZ for SBS, will reveal how her extreme views have influenced race and racism in politics today. Her rise and fall was remarkable, and Hanson: The Years That Shook Australia will reveal telling new insights for the first time.

On ABC last night a really superb series came to an end. If you think you know all about life before birth, think again. I was sometimes challenged, sometimes gobsmacked by Countdown to Life.


Mosley met Nell, a seven-year-old who received a double dose of her father’s growth gene in the womb and so towered over her classmates. Melanie Gaydos, a New York model, suffered from a slip-up in the womb which caused catastrophic damage to her hair and teeth. Randy Foye, a top American basketball player, was born with his heart on the right-hand side of his chest, because his embryo had developed wrongly. Fourteen members of one family had six fingers on each hand because there was too much of a particular protein – charmingly called Sonic Hedgehog – in the womb.

This could so very easily have descended into distasteful freak TV. But Mosley treated his subjects with such gentle, scholarly care that you didn’t feel they were being taken advantage of. You never laughed at them; you just ended up thanking God you passed those intensely precarious eight weeks with fingers, teeth and heart in the right place.


See also Nine things that shape your identity before birth.