Precision: The Measure of All Things; The Greatest Shows on Earth – TV review

This science documentary was fascinating – even if I didn't understand a word

Even at its most user-friendly, TV has its limits. Precision: The Measure of All Things (BBC4), Marcus du Sautoy's three-part investigation into quantification, which ended last night with light, heat and electricity, was a case in point. It was a documentary that had everything going for it: a fascinating topic, an engaging presenter and high production values. And yet, there were several times when I might as well have been watching one of those Open University physics programmes from the 70s – and I have watched several in the past, mainly because there was nothing else on the TV at one in the morning – where the lecturer used to just talk to camera in front of a chalkboard. Despite the great locations, the experiments-made-easy and Du Sautoy's easy manner, I was a bit lost.

I got the fact that light, heat and electricity are all related. I got the importance of understanding and calibrating them in a unified way. But that was about it. What I came away with was more an impressionistic guide to measurement, whose main identifying characteristic was its imprecision. It was deeply frustrating, all the more so as the problem was almost certainly mine. There have been many occasions over the past 30 years when I've tried to give myself a working knowledge of science, but I still find myself understanding not nearly as much as I would like. If there is a gene for maths, I don't have it.

Watching Precision reminded me of reading Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. Each sentence made sense on its own, but by the time I had got to the end of a paragraph I was hopelessly lost. The same thing happened here. There were several occasions where I'd find Du Sautoy had made a conceptual leap that was utterly beyond me. A few examples: I've still no idea how Alessandro Volta imagined a battery out of discs of copper, zinc and cardboard soaked in brine by studying a torpedo ray. Nor why humans experience green light more intensely than red light. Nor why the Kelvin scale, which I thought I had just learned was incredibly accurate, turns out not to be at high temperatures.

I'm sure the problem was entirely mine and that there were any number of proper scientists watching the same programme and tut-tutting at yet another example of how dumbed-down TV has become. And yet for all Precision's personal frustrations – or maybe even because of them – I found the series compelling viewing. The subject matter was fascinating and I liked the fact Du Sautoy made no concessions to my stupidity. I've already watched most of it twice, having had to rewind large chunks in a failed bid to keep up, but I promise to have another go when it is repeated in a few days' time.

We didn't find out if Indian television has programmes like Precision in The Greatest Shows on Earth (ITV1), the second of Daisy Donovan's excursions into a country's soul through the lens of its TV cameras. But we did get to see that Indian TV actually looks a great deal like ours in most other respects, with dodgy game shows, talent shows with Simon Cowell pantomime-villain judges and soaps featuring domestic violence dominating the primetime schedules. This is what partly saved Greatest Shows from being another programme poking fun and getting moralistic about TV from other cultures. I'd certainly watch any of the Indian talent shows on offer here over The Voice or Britain's Got Talent.

Mostly what saved this programme was Donovan herself, who has a gift both for getting on with the people she hooks up with along the way and for being a natural in front of the camera. She makes you feel as if you are living the experience with her, rather than an outsider whom she has reluctantly been forced to invite along. It also helps that Donovan likes to get stuck in rather than observe from the edges. So first she got up on stage to bash a member of the Sikh martial arts troupe over the head with a fluorescent light strip – it's a great act for the not-so squeamish – and then took to the boards to do a guest slot as an Indian dancer, thereby inadvertently proving that television really is becoming more and more the same the world over. If you want to appear on TV in a different country, the easiest way to go about it is to turn up with your own film crew saying you are making a programme about them.

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John Crace

The GuardianTramp

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