Science Britannica; The Three Day Nanny – TV review

Brian Cox is back – and this time he's delving into all our darkest fears

He's a young professor, good-looking, a charismatic genius, possibly a little bit arrogant, but passionate about science and passionate about communicating science to the public. A pop-star scientist, if you like. He is ... Humphry Davy.

Oh. The chemist and inventor, around at the end of the 18th/beginning of the 19th century? The same.

Here in Science Britannica (BBC2), today's pop-star scientist, Professor Brian Cox, is in the theatre of the Royal Institution, which pretty much was TV back when Davy performed there, recreating one of Davy's experiments. He sets fire to a diamond, dropping it into liquid oxygen (after dropping it on the floor – was that real, Brian, or just for a bit of theatre?). The purpose of the experiment is to show that a diamond is solely made of carbon, and to demonstrate one of the latest scientific theories: that everything is made up of limited number of elements.

I reckon Cox identifies with Davy. Certainly it's clear that Davy was the Cox of his day, or the other way around. I wonder if it could be that when Davy died, another scientist, the Italian physicist (and galvanist) Giovanni Aldini, who was hanging around at the time, had Davy disinterred by grave robbers in the middle of the night (when else would they do it?) and taken back to his gothic laboratory?

Here Aldini plunged electrodes into Davy's corpse, to show that electricity is the very spark of life. It look a while, roughly a couple of centuries, but eventually Davy came back to life, as Cox. For Giovanni Aldini read Victor Frankenstein ... making Cox Frankenstein's monster. Things Can Only Get Worse. Well, it's just a theory …

Anyway, that is what we are talking about here. Science Britannica is a celebration of British science, over the years, but with special emphasis on controversy. So Coxy is focussing on when the the non-scientific community (Mary Shelley, for example) mistrusts and fears what the scientists are getting up to. From galvanism, through atom splitting, to GM and vivisection.

A departure for him. And to begin with I'm not sure I'm happy about it. Come on, it's Brian Cox. I want big stuff. I want it to be about the beginning and before, the end and after, and all that comes in between. I want to go to the stars and beyond, I want numbers that go on for ever. I want to be dazzled, by science, by Cox's blissed-out smile, and to be bathed in sparkling Mancunian phosphorescence. I want him in the Namibian desert, staring at the night sky, and on mountain tops, looking out over everything, and understanding what it all means. I want Acid Science, not homework, don't I?

He is still smiling, to be fair, all the time. And he does look out – if not from a mountain top, then over London from Primrose Hill. And out from the window of a train, a train to Norwich, to meet the GM man. This is smaller in scale, in ambition, in everything.

But small can be beautiful (hey!). Especially when Cox is involved. And, while usually he loses me somewhere in a black hole, or abandons me in cosmic time, this I find I can get my tiny little unscientific mistrustful head around. I actually pretty much understand it all. And it is totally fascinating, of course. That doesn't mean he's not a monster …

The Three Day Nanny (Channel 4) induced feelings of mistrust and fear in me too. Mistrust of Kathryn Mewes, the Three Day Nanny of the title. Who does she think she is, rocking up on her bloody bicycle, telling this poor couple they are crap at parenting, and saying she can put it all right in just three days? She's like Mary Poppins' evil stepsister, without either the magic or the joy.

And fear of what's to come in my own house. Ours is a little younger than the two little rascals here, Harry and Alfie; but I can see some behavioural similarities. It's like a terrifying preview of what is in store. [Adopts movie-preview voice] Coming soon, to a living room near you ...

It soon becomes clear that Harry and Alfie's parents really aren't very good at it. I mean, they are lovely, they just need a bit of guidance. As do we, I'm sure. Also that Mewes has some handy tools and tricks in that case of hers. She actually does pretty much sort them out, in three days.

I take it all back Kathryn Mewes. And I don't suppose you've got three days spare in about six months' time have you?

• Full TV listings


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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