Mud Sweat and Tractors; Fossil Wonderlands: Nature's Hidden Treasures; The Crusades

Mud Sweat and Tractors is a four part series about the changes in farming in Britain over the last century or so. It split it up into four areas - milk, horticulture, wheat and beef - and treated each as a separate story, so each episode seemed quite self-contained. Each time there were two or three farming families chosen who had photographs and video footage stretching back to the 1930s. So they made good case studies and could talk about why they or their Dad or Grandad had made particular decisions at particular points. And the old videos were good for showing what the actual changes were. As well as this there were several social historians or experts in other parts of the farming/food production process who could talk about the wider trends that the individual farmers & their decisions fitted into.

Separating it out like that worked for telling the individual stories, but I think I might've like a bit more explicit drawing together of the themes that affected all the areas of farming. I could work some of them out, it just would've been nice to see more discussion of it in the actual programmes. Some of the commonalities were that the Second World War, and the aftermath of it, were a turning point - farming had been in decline before that, but during the war food imports were cut off and so increased production was important. After the war there was concern that Britain shouldn't return to the pre-war situation, so farmers were given financial incentives to stay farming and to increase food production. And a lot of effort put into scientifically improving the breeds and technology used in farming. And the common theme after that is of food production getting too high - too much that wasn't being eaten - so the subsidies go and it gets much harder for farmers economically. In addition some of the previous good ideas become seen as not such a good thing - things like the increase in chemicals used in horticulture in the post-war era (like DDT). Or things like breeding beef cattle for larger size & less fatty meat, but then it turns out that doesn't taste so good so you have to compensate and fatten them up a bit.

It was interesting watching this with J. I grew up in a town so it was just history for me, and someone else's history if that makes sense. But J grew up in a very rural area, right near farms. For a while his family rented a house on a farm, most of the rest of the time they lived in a 10 house village with working farms around them. So a lot of the 70s and 80s footage included things he remembered seeing as a child. I think we watched one bit of it three or four times in the last episode, because it included a hay baler that was exactly the sort he'd been fascinated by as a little boy. It had a robot arm, and somehow hay went in, was moved around by the arm then came out as square bales. Which was kinda fascinating to watch :)

In Fossil Wonderlands: Nature's Hidden Treasures Richard Fortey visited 3 particularly important and rich fossil beds, and talked about what they'd taught us about the evolution of life. One commonality of the three is that they have fossils with the soft body parts preserved, which means we know so much more about the animals than is generally possible from fossils.

First (and most obvious to me) was the Burgess Shale - a section of the Rockies where early multicellular organisms are well preserved. We'd just seen that on the David Attenborough programme we watched recently (post) so this wasn't new ground for us. Still nice to see tho, particularly as I remember reading about it when I was a teenager. The second episode took us to China and to some new fossil beds there which are re-writing our ideas of how birds evolved and what the differences between dinosaurs and birds actually are. This is because these recently discovered fossils include several feathered dinosaurs. And the last of the three fossil beds was in Germany, with many fossils from early in the explosion of mammalian diversity after the dinosaurs died out. These well preserved fossils include lots of bats (already looking very sophisticated), early horses, and the earliest known primate fossils.

This was an interesting series :) I'm sure I've said before that I wanted to be a palaeontologist when I was in my early teens - until I worked out that it would mean lots of being outside grubbing about in the dirt & rocks! So I particularly like seeing these sorts of programmes, and all the cool stuff that's been discovered since I was reading so much about it.

We also finished watching a series about The Crusades this week. It was presented by Thomas Asbridge, and I'm pretty sure we've seen it before - but not during a period when I was blogging about the TV we watch so I can't be 100% sure (this is one incentive to keep writing up the programmes we see!). Sadly the reason we're pretty sure we've seen it is because the irritations seemed familiar. Some of that was the style - whenever there was a static image (like a painting from a manuscript) they'd tilt it or pan around on it in a particular irritating fashion. And there was a lot of over dramaticness to the script and the way Asbridge presented it. And for all it was billed as "groundbreaking" I didn't really have any "wow I didn't know that/remember that" moments (and I don't think that's just because I think I've seen it before).

It covered the Crusades in three chunks. First the start, and the initial successes (and their attendant brutalities). Next was Richard the Lionheart vs. Saladin. The final episode looked at the Muslim success in driving out the Christians, and at how it was actually the need to fight the encroaching Mongol Empire that drove this and the effects on the Christian Crusader Kingdoms were more of a side-effect.

Overall it was interesting enough to keep watching, but not as interesting as I'd hoped.

Other TV watched this week:

Episode 1 of How the Wild West Was Won with Ray Mears - a look at how the geography of the USA affected the colonisation and history of the Wild West.

Episode 1 of Secrets of Bones - series about bones, their biology & evolution.