CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews last night’s TV: Lice one, doc! Proof that Ratty didn’t cause The Great Plague
The Great Plague: Outbreak
As we get older, established facts change strangely. Things we learned at school become untrue.
There are only eight planets in the solar system, not nine (Pluto doesn’t count any more) and King Harold wasn’t killed by an arrow through the eye (the Bayeux Tapestry is fake news).
Lucy Worsley, dame of the dressing-up box, is extracting an excellent series from the notion with her Royal History’s Biggest Fibs. Dr Xand van Tulleken produced a pearler of the genre, by proving that rats did not spread the disease in The Great Plague: Outbreak (C5).
Left to right: Archaeologist Raksha Davey, Dr Xand van Tulleken and journalist John Sergeant on The Great Plague: Outbreak
Of course, evry skoolboy knos that rats and their fleas were responsible for the pestilence that ravaged London’s population in 1665, an epidemic that ended only with the Great Fire that fumigated the entire city a year later.
And, according to my O-level history, it wasn’t just any old rat that was to blame, but the ship rat, Rattus rattus, as ratty a rat as it’s possible to conceive. But Dr Xand threw doubt on this idea, pointing out that if plague came into Britain from rodents in the holds of ships, then the first cases ought to have been seen at the ports and docks.
In fact, as 17th-century Test and Trace revealed, the outbreak began in the slums around Drury Lane. Archaeologist Raksha Dave helped solve the mystery with a visit to the MoD’s Porton Down research centre, where plates of plague bacteria are guarded in a ‘containment level three’ laboratory.
Then she travelled to Marseille, where a scientist took ghoulish glee in showing her human body lice writhing on a piece of cloth.
It was these, he said, that spread the disease.
Meanwhile, John Sergeant was lying in a bed wearing a medieval nightcap, having prosthetic buboes applied to his neck by a make-up artist while his nose was painted a gangrenous black. He might have looked more unwell if he hadn’t been enjoying it so much.
All this was filmed before Covid-19 took hold, though Dr Xand tacked a speech on to the start to emphasise the parallels: ‘For me, the connections between the pandemics are frightening.’
Given that coronavirus has killed about 0.1 per cent of the British population, while The Great Plague proved fatal for 70 per cent of those infected and up to a quarter of people in London died, the comparison bordered on scaremongering. Still, there’s never been a more aposite time to watch a series like this. It continues tonight.
How To Spend It Well At Christmas (ITV) with Phillip Schofield doesn’t feel festive this year
Phillip Schofield’s annual festive splurge, How To Spend It Well At Christmas (ITV), seemed oddly out of place, even though the big day is less than six weeks away. Partly that’s because High Streets that should be thronging with shoppers are eerily deserted now. And partly it’s because this show must have been recorded ages ago: everyone was crowding together indoors to test this year’s must-buy presents.
The Great British Bake Off:
Single entendre of the night: Innuendo was back with a vengeance in The Great British Bake Off (C4) as the semifinalists tackled a Danish horn of plenty. ‘Pru, do you want to try some of my horn?’ smirked Paul Hollywood. Eurrgh . . . that’s enough to put you off pastry.
It makes you wonder how long those ‘brand new’ products have been sitting on the shelves. Adults liked the over-priced gadgets controlled by apps on tablets, except for Christopher Biggins, who threw himself into a game of yoga Twister.
Predictably, the children were happiest with classic toys such as Lego — though a fluffy flamingo that sat on a toilet and produced glittery guano had a bunch of eight-year-olds in hysterics.
Otherwise, boys liked footballs and girls liked dolls — how shockingly un-PC.
Phillip was reunited with his sidekick from the children’s telly days, Gordon the Gopher. Now we know who’s really going to be replacing Eamonn and Ruth on This Morning . . .