Contagion! The BBC Four Pandemic

9pm, BBC Four

In common with many, I celebrated the dawning of 2018 by coming down with Australian flu, an experience that left me with a whole new appreciation for the phrase “a new strain”. As a connoisseur of flu, I always like to get a good dose of whatever is doing the rounds, but I’d never had anything quite like this. The lingering after taste, the way it left the body drained, weak and grouchy for a fortnight after the other symptoms had gone, was a particularly noble characteristic. But it was the full-bodied coughing fits that were the real delight: those delicious, wracking, suffocating seizures that didn’t let go until you were right on the verge of vomiting, or just past it.

In the following weeks, after I was out and about again, I similarly developed a deep new understanding of the epithet “Typhoid Mary”, usually while sitting trapped on public transport, screaming inside my head “for God’s sake cover your mouth” while across the aisle, some poor feverish soul who clearly shouldn’t have been out and about coughed, hacked, sneezed and generally perfumed the air with fine mists of disease, like a sweaty human death aerosol.

I was reminded of those happy days while watching Contagion! The BBC Four Pandemic, a film about how flu works, changes and spreads that might not be the most entertaining or elegantly constructed documentary you’ll see this week, but which is certainly the most important.

Why important? Well, consider this cheery fact, offered early, then repeated several times: never mind threat from terrorism, from unbalanced world leaders in possession of nuclear weapons, or from the steady cataclysm of climate change. The biggest danger currently facing the country, as quietly assessed by the Government, is a new strain of flu reaching pandemic proportions.

Already, at secret depots across the UK, there stand huge warehouses stockpiled with (possibly useless) antiviral drugs and protection kits in readiness for such an outbreak.

Meanwhile, in other vast, anonymous industrial sheds, scientists are doing strange things with countless eggs, hoping to produce a vaccine for when the next virus strikes.

Because it’s not a matter of “if”, but “when” – or, more precisely, when it will happen again. The last flu pandemic to hit Britain occurred in 2009, a relatively mild strain, which almost caused the entire health system to collapse. The example to bear in mind, however, is the influenza pandemic of 1918, the infamous Spanish flu, a strain that was around 20 times more deadly than normal. Some 228,000 died in the UK alone, and over 70 million worldwide – more than were killed during the war that had just ended.

Still, never mind. The BBC has made an app for it. The film follows a project by the disconcertingly cheerful Dr Hannah Fry, who is exploiting the possibilities of smartphones, GPS tracking and social media to gather data of a quantity and quality never possible before. Volunteers in their thousands downloaded the software, essentially a virtual virus. Then, by tracking their movements and interactions, Fry’s team build an incredibly detailed, faintly terrifying mathematical model charting how – and how quickly – a virus can spread through the country.

The information they gather may prove vital in helping authorities decide such matters as where to target vaccination and other resources, whether or not to close roads and airports – and how many body bags might be needed. When it comes to the projected numbers of fatalities, the results of this virtual pandemic are sobering, to say the least. Now excuse me while I wash my hands.


13 Commandments

Channel 4 10.05pm

Typical. You wait years for a series about maverick Belgium detectives investigating incredibly convoluted and grisly serial killings, then two come along at once. Hot on the kitten heels of Rough Justice – the one with the interesting lady cop who relaxes by playing drums – Channel 4 unveils another new Flemish-language crime acquisition under its Walter Presents banner. (After this first episode, the rest of the series will be streaming on All 4). Taking a lead (ahem) from Se7en, the thriller follows the hunt for a serial killer with a message, basing murders around the Biblical 10 Commandments, except with three more, because it sounds cooler. Leading the investigation come detective Peter Devriendt (Dirk van Dijck), who also has a big DIY project and a bolshy teenage daughter to deal with, and troubled new partner Vicky Degraeve (Marie Vinck), who is suffering both physical and psychological wounds. Icky violence, unfamiliar locations, mystery and dollops of odd-couple comedy will keep Eurocrime regulars content.


Secrets Of The Masons

9pm, BBC Two

Bill Paterson narrates this documentary, which goes a little beyond the popular image of funny handshakes, rolled trouser legs, ornate aprons and debatable free-kick decisions, to provide a peek beyond the closed doors of an organisation everyone has heard of, but few know much about. For the first time, Freemasons have allowed cameras into Scottish lodges to shed light on aspects of what adherents call “The Craft”. Prominent Freemasons discuss the conspiracy theories, the extent and influence of membership in the past and present, and how, despite a steady decline in numbers, they continue to accept new candidates. Meanwhile, the film also considers some of the secrets of the past, as members open ledgers dating back 400 years, to the organisation’s roots in Scotland during the reign of James VI, when masons decided to guard trade secrets as they reconstructed castles and other buildings following years of civil war and in-fighting. We also hear about some of the most famous masons, including your Robert Burns.



9pm, BBC One

They might not have the maverick stuff to make it in the Belgium force, but, as ever, Jimmy Perez (Douglas Henshall) and company have provided a steady dose of dependable, highly watchable midweek crime – fingers crossed they will return. Or some of them, anyway, as there’s still the final episode of this series for them to get through first. Now that it’s clear beyond any doubt that the troubled Tommy Malone was innocent of the murder he spent 23 years in prison for, Perez has to face up to the fact the DNA results are pointing in a disturbing direction, and disturbingly close to home. As the protesting suspect is brought in to face questions about both the historical crime and the recent murder, a difficult round of interrogation begins, and Perez is soon discovering a world of secrets and lies … but there’s the discovery of yet more old evidence looming. Meanwhile, there are those links to the Norwegian far-right to be explored, and news of a new panic stalking the streets of Shetland.


American Crime Story:

The Assassination Of Gianni Versace

9pm, BBC Two

Time folds back again as the series takes us to Minneapolis in the April of 1997 (a few weeks before the Chicago murder of Lee Miglin depicted last week), to witness the beginning of Andrew Cunanan’s killing spree. We find him crashing in the loft apartment of a young architect, David Madison, who is clearly keen to get rid of him. Unexpectedly, another mutual acquaintance arrives, Jeffrey Trail, responding to an invitation from Cunanan. And then things get very bleak and very bloody, very fast. Once again, the decision to tell this story in reverse adds odd layers to events: a feeling of impending doom building in an ominously blank atmosphere. The questions of how Cunanan met these people, and what stories he told them about himself, begins to nag. Once again, within the larger story, the episode also develops its own strange, individual character, in this case a touching portrait of Madison’s relationship with his father.


Better Than The Original:

The Joy Of The Cover Version

9pm, BBC Four

Sports Relief is rolling out on BBC One tonight from 7pm, which is a noble event in a great cause and people have a lot of fun taking part. But don’t let anyone tell you it’s good Friday night TV. For all us unhealthy, BBC Four has dug out a couple of music documentary repeats. At 8pm, there’s Don’t Stop: The Fleetwood Mac Story, a profile of the ever-feuding sixties survivors and the inter-band passions that fuelled them, especially the complex relationship between Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham. Later, The Joy Of The Cover Version considers the good, the bad and the Puff Daddy of taking other people’s songs. Among the dimly lit contributors, Marc Almond and Rick Rubin have good insights on what it takes to make someone else’s tune your own. Best of all, there’s John Cale and Nerina Pallot, both good on how Cale rediscovered and reshaped Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, beginning the process of transforming a barely-known cult song into a modern hymn.


Picasso’s Last Stand

9pm, BBC Two

The amazing sounding Picasso exhibition that has just opened down at the Tate in London focuses on a single, pivotal year in his career – 1932, his “year of wonders,” when he was 50, and cemented his status as the greatest. But, although coinciding with that new show, this documentary leaps ahead, to the 1960s, to instead concentrate on his lesser-celebrated final decade. With contributions from family and close friends – including some of the young and beautiful who were allowed entry to his inner circle – it’s the story of an artist entering his 80s, with his health beginning to decline, who is simultaneously being faced with a new wave of damaging criticism of his work, and also the spread of gossip about his lifestyle. Yet in the midst of this, facing the coming of old age head on, he switched gears, yet again, entering into a creative surge that would produce some of his most sexually frank, most comic and, some argue, greatest work. Paul McGann narrates the story.




CALLER: Uh, yes…hello. Okay. I was watching Coronation Street, and there was this thing at the end: if you’ve been affected by any of the issues, to call this number?

OPERATOR: Yes, thank you for calling. You’re doing the right thing. So. Was it a particular issue you’d like to talk to someone about?

CALLER: Well, no, not really, it’s…Well. It’s all of them. All the issues.

OPERATOR: All of them?

CALLER. Yeah. There are too many. It’s ruining the programme. I mean, it’s like…If I wanted to watch some humourless, cobbled together button-pushing flag-waving knee-jerk by-the-numbers clockwork do-good misery so unconvincingly contrived and written it left a lot of really good actors floundering to sell it while they shouted at each other amid a veil of fake tears, you know, I’d watch EastEnders. And I’ve devoted a good part of my life to specifically not watching EastEnders.

OPERATOR: I see. You think the show has gone “too dark.”

CALLER: No, I don’t think it’s gone “too dark.” I think it’s gone too stupid. Listen, I was there for Alan Bradley, right? I was there for Don Brennan, the one-legged taxi driver, okay? Believe me: it doesn’t get darker than Don. Dark is fine. And if by “dark,” you mean Pat Phelan, he’s about the best thing in it just now. But Pat would be plenty, you know? On his own. Or, like, the bullied girl with the eating disorder getting groomed and abused then turning into a traumatised lap-dancer, for some reason – that would be, uh … okay – but On Its Own. But to suddenly give her boyfriend OCD ... And don’t get me started on the overnight junky vicar. Holy god. And now this with David Platt, I mean ... enough, you know? Yes, give him a story, because he’s amazing but … well, yeah: give him a story, not Problem Of The Month.

OPERATOR: So you think–

CALLER: And, I mean, all the other stuff. How many secret pregnancies can you do? And Carla snogging Michelle’s doctor son. Listen: most of us barely remember Michelle’s doctor son. And none of us care. And you know what the worst thing was? You went and got Vic Reeves in, which was a brilliant idea. And then you did NOTHING with him. NO–THING. I mean what the actual–

OPERATOR: So what you’re saying is–

CALLER: What I’m saying is, make a pot of tea, watch some of the Classic Corrie repeats on ITV3 – watch them carefully – then come back and concentrate on the old school characters for a bit. Characters. Not issues. This thing with Audrey and Gail and the psychic, that’s not bad. Although you’ll probably turn around and do a storyline about Eccles getting caught up in a dogfighting ring.

OPERATOR: [silence]

CALLER: Hello?

OPERATOR: Sorry, I was just writing that down, “…dog-fight-ing-ring…” Hmm. So, how would you see that developing? The impact on Ken?

CALLER: –click–