The omens are not too good, as the Ancient Greeks would have said: this three-part series, made by Atlantic Productions - and narrated with a mid-Atlantic accent by actor Liam Neeson - opens with the sort of portentous music and cliche-laden commentary ("the very foundations of Western civilisation... art and architecture we still strive to equal... for one brief moment the mighty warships of the Greeks ruled the seas...") that suggests the worst kind of popular educational television. It can only get better, you think; and, thankfully, it does: much better.
The commentary may be pitched at a wide audience, but it manages to make accessible a lot of information and some suggestive ideas (for example, on the importance of myths and stories in Athenian culture or the economic foundations of democracy). The computer graphics are good, the dramatic reconstructions short and not over-explicit, and the contributions of talking heads (university professors from both sides of the Atlantic) brief and tothe point.
Part one begins in Athens in the sixth century BC, telling the story of Cleisthenes, the overthrow of the tyrants and the invention of democracy. The second part covers the Persian wars and the golden age of Athenian civilisation, and the last film describes the war between Athens and Sparta. This is not the whole Elgin Marbles, but a useful summary for those who would otherwise pass on questions to do with Socrates and Sophocles, Aristotle, Aeschylus and Aristophanes.
There is even, in part one, a section on the Olympic Games that would fit neatly into a project on the subject next term (and tie in with the August season of Olympic films at the National Film Theatre in London, if you like); or the three parts would provide useful preparation for a school trip to Greece. A surprisingly good series, in short, and one that convinces you that you ought to learn more about its subject.
* Brain Story, BBC2, Tuesday, July 18, 9-9.50pm
Professor Susan Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution and one of Britain's leading neuroscientists, is quite uncompromising when it comes to spirituality: "I'm convinced there isn't a single aspect of our lives that doesn't reside in the sludgy mass of our brain cells." These words are spoken against a background of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, leaving no doubt about their implications for religion and artistic creativity. This is a series with a mission: to interpret the latest research into the workings of the brain and to show what the findings imply about human beings: "Why do we think the way we do, what makes us who we are? Our hopes, ourfears, our thoughts, our dreams are all somehow hidden away inside our heads."
The process of exploring this involves watching a brain and its (fully awake) owner during an operation to remove a tumour, and meeting a number of people whose brains, for one reason or another, are malfunctioning: a woman, once a keen musician, who can no longer appreciate music, an amputee who still "feels" her missing arm, and so on. This is one of the BBC's heavyweight science series: long on information, but possibly a trifle short on the feelgood factor.
* Scene by Scene with Rod Steiger, BBC2, Saturday, July 15, 10.45-11.35pm
This series of interviews by Mark Cousins is proving to be a really effective contribution to media studies. The formula is simple: an actor or director sits down beside a screen and watches clips from his or her films, then comments on them - unless the actordirector happens to be Woody Allen, who stubbornly turned away from the screen, protesting that he never looks at any of his old movies.
In between, Cousins take the guest through his career in a series of sharp, often erudite questions (Rod Steiger, in this programme, accuses him of talking like the film magazine Sight and Sound). Somehow, the combination of a well-informed, laid-back interviewer and those bits of old celluloid can lead to fascinating conversations and a lot of information about how the movies were made.
In the case of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, scandals in their private lives proved a distraction from the central theme. Not so with Rod Steiger. Every clip elicits information that changes the way one sees the film in question: how Brando let him down in the taxi scene from On the Waterfront; how he and Sidney Poitier developed a crucial scene when making In the Heat of the Night; how Steiger forgot his lines in a live television production of Marty.
Between the clips, he has anecdotes about those he has worked with including James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Humphrey Bogart and many others, as well as insights into particular performances and the actor's art in general, which he tells with wit and intelligence. Perhaps the best in a good series.
* Young Musician of the Year Final, Radio 2, Sunday, July 16, 4-5pm
The final of the Radio 2 Young Musician of the Year competition takes place this Sunday at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and features three musicians, each 22 years old: classical guitarist Russell Poyner, who performs a piece by Rodrigo; violinist Ruth Rogers, with "Havanaise" by Saint-Saens; and violinist Rafal Zambrzycki-Payne, who plays the third movement of Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy".
Schools TV listings return on September 8