DO you know the history of your house? Would you want to? All those thoughts about who traipsed those floors before you, where that crack in the ceiling came from, and why after all these years there is still a funny smell in that cupboard … it could drive a person into the hands of the nearest new-build property developers.
David Olusoga, being the presenter of A House Through Time (BBC2, Tuesday, 9pm), has no such qualms. As far as he is concerned, the juicier the history the better. Tracing the history of a house is “the ultimate detective hunt” he says, one that “uncovers lives that weren’t recorded in books”. It’s a great idea and, as the viewing figures show, a popular one.
The fourth series gets in with the bricks at a handsome Victorian house in Headingley, Leeds. Built towards the latter half of the 19th century, the first occupant was a solicitor and his wife, followed by someone up and coming in textiles, and in more recent times a couple who worked for the Yorkshire Post. In total, reckons Olusoga, some 130 people have called 5 Grosvenor Mount home.
Sometimes, the occupiers are fascinating in their own right. On other occasions they are a starting point for another tale. The young solicitor, for example, was a social reformer who campaigned to remove the death sentence from a man who poisoned his wife. Using newspaper reports of the time, Olusoga pieces together the murderer’s story.
Under the collective gaze of Olusoga and his researchers, there is no such thing as a life without interest.
One of the sleeper hits of lockdown times was The Terror, the story of an expedition to the Arctic that is brought to a halt when the ship becomes stuck in the ice. As the sailors wait for a thaw, something “out there” is making its presence known; or is it on board? Produced by Ridley Scott no less, the first series is still on iPlayer and is thoroughly recommended.
The opening scenes of The North Water (BBC2, Friday, 9.30pm) reminded me of The Terror. It may have been the bleak setting, or the profusion of men with beards. Henry Drax (played by Colin Farrell) is one such individual, and between the women and the drink and his general misanthropy what an awful creature he is. Just when you think he could not be any worse we learn that he wields the harpoon on a whaling ship.
Also about to set sale on the Volunteer is young surgeon Patrick Sumner (Jack O’Connell). With his refined air and love of reading, what is he doing on this expedition? Then there’s the captain of the ship, Brownlee, a keeper of many secrets (played by Stephen Graham) alongside the equally sinister Baxter (Tom Courtenay).
Courtenay, Graham, O’Connell, Farrell: the terrific cast is recommendation enough to watch. A word to the wise, though: a strong stomach is required for several of the scenes, and that is before we even get to the whaling.
As he confesses at the outset of Imagine … Tom Stoppard (BBC1, Thursday, 10.35), Alan Yentob has wanted a sit down with England’s greatest living playwright (discuss) for many years, but he was always politely rebuffed. Now 84 and with a new play, Leopoldstadt, in the theatre, Stoppard finally said yes.
He is a fascinating subject on so many counts, his life one of contrasts. He is an intellectual who loves nothing more than a good joke; a private person whose relationships, with Miriam Stoppard, Felicity Kendall and others, have sometimes been played out in the public eye.
Even his quintessential English country gentleman demeanour is not all it seems. As Patrick Marber, who directs Leopoldstadt, says: “He was a refugee. An immigrant. He reconstituted himself as an English boy and got away with it.”
It is this latter aspect of his life that is explored in Leopoldstadt. Born Tomas Straussler in Zlin, Czechoslovakia in 1937, Stoppard’s early years were spent with his Jewish family, fleeing the Nazis, first to Singapore then to India, finally arriving in England with his mother and brother.
For most of his life the details of what happened to his wider family remained hidden from him. His mother would never talk of the past. Tom, being the type, in his own words, to “put the shutters up” when trauma came too close, did not press the subject.
Yentob covers the entire span of Stoppard’s career, from rock star playwright in the Sixties to the National Theatre years, and on to Hollywood, winning an Oscar for his Shakespeare in Love screenplay, and beyond.
It is a terrific story, full of surprises. However long Yentob had to wait, it was worth it in