The Romantics (Episode 3: Eternity): visually striking portrayal of four English Romantic poets

Samuel Hobkinson, “The Romantics (Episode 3: Eternity)” (2005)

Visually striking installment in the BBC documentary “The Romantics” which traces the work and biographies of significant literary figures in the Romantic movement in Britain during the late 1700s / early 1800s, this episode concentrates on four such writers: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron. The main themes of this episode are the power of the imagination to open up new ways of thinking and living, and defining one’s identity without the support of religion in an age electrified by the new philosophies and values of the Enlightenment. The poets and writers under focus all sought their own ways of forging new identities, seeking unusual experiences and gaining self-knowledge and enlightenment: Coleridge was inspired by dreams under the influence of opium but became addicted to it; Keats was affected by family deaths at a young age and was plagued by ill health, dying young from tuberculosis; Shelley was an atheist and espoused free love in his affair with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin, author of “Frankenstein”; and Lord Byron sought identity in being a celebrity and pursuing adventures in foreign lands and sensual pleasures as an end in itself. Throughout the film, narrator and writer Peter Ackroyd pops up in scenes of contemporary urban British society and rural landscapes to trace these writers’ lives and relate significant events they experienced to their surroundings where the experiences occurred. Actors playing the writers wander the sites, reciting excerpts of their characters’ important works.

The cinematography is beautiful and respects the featured landscapes where the writers spent their lives. Interiors of houses and other buildings are given a moody ambience. Coleridge is dispensed with quickly and the film shifts focus onto Shelley, Keats and Byron whose destinies are often intertwined. The actors chosen to play the poets have sensitive and expressive faces and the actor who plays Keats portrays the poet’s fragility and melancholy at the knowledge that his life will be shortened severely by disease.

The Enlightenment project challenged the authority of religion and replaced it with the need and desire to find one’s own individuality and relationship to society and nature generally as one form of self-enlightenment among others. Although this had positive results – individual creativity was freed to pursue independent and often daring paths of expression – the negative aspects of individuality and self-discovery could be dangerous, even life-threatening: Shelley was expelled from Oxford University for publicly questioning the existence of God and often faced issues of dark self-doubt; and Lord Byron plunged into a life of excess that included racking up huge debts, tempestuous marriages and various love affairs including a supposed incestuous liaison with his half-sister.

I sense a hesitancy in the program to pursue the effect the Enlightenment had on these men’s lives to its ultimate extent: Ackroyd presents Lord Byron as a mere self-indulgent libertine, no different than, say, the Marquis de Sade who declared himself a child of the Enlightenment no less than Byron was or for that matter, Beau Brummell, and who like them was famous for his life-style. Omitted is the manner of Lord Byron’s demise and the circumstances in which it occurred: he died from septicaemia in an infected wound while participating as a freedom fighter in the Battle of Missolonghi, one of the pivotal battles in the Greek war of independence in 1824. Yes BBC, the search for self-knowledge and using your own brain to question society’s conventions can also lead a person into supporting an oppressed people’s desire for self-determination and independence and that surely is the reason that the Enlightenment was such a revolutionary period.

The Romantics (Episode 2: Nature): a visually beautiful film that ignores the dark side of the Romanticist legacy

Samuel Hobkinson, “The Romantics (Episode 2: Nature)” (2005)

While searching for a Czech documentary “Zdroj” (“The Source”) on Youtube and not finding it there – it probably hasn’t been uploaded yet – I came across this very interesting BBC TV documentary which is part of a series on the Romantic literary movement in late 18th / early 19th century Britain written and narrated by Peter Ackroyd. This second instalment focusses on the importance of nature as a source of inspiration to the leading British writers in the Romantic movement at the time: William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, John Clare and, some time later, Mary Shelley. All these writers are portrayed by actors quoting their works, appearing as ghosts in modern-day Britain and commenting on the environment they see around them through the poetry of their respective poets: this is intended to bring the poetry alive to a modern audience and also makes it social and political criticism as it was intended to be. The documentary presses its point that the British Romanticists were the social and cultural critics of their day and expressed their often forceful opinions about the issues of their day in a literary mode aimed at rousing the social conscience of the educated classes and ruling elites, in a period when literacy was not widespread or well-developed even among monied and propertied people.

In style and appearance, the film revels in widescreen shots of the British countryside and beyond where required by the subject matter, visiting mountains with their dramatic vistas and mist-shrouded lakes from which an arm clothed in gold fabric might emerge to catch a king’s sword. Ackroyd makes frequent appearances but his portly physique and slight speech impediment don’t detract at all from the proceedings and merely add a slightly eccentric flavour to the film’s proceedings: I wouldn’t have minded if he had visited all the places in the film and declaimed all the poets’ works himself. A documentary such as this, marrying literature to its physical and spiritual sources of inspiration, perhaps needs an idiosyncratic presenter who can turn out to be as timeless as the works s/he champions.

The film firmly establishes the social, political and cultural context of the Romanticist movement: Britain at the beginning of the 19th century is fast becoming industrialised with the routines of the increasing majority of the population becoming more governed by the demands of machines, clocks especially, and by the new values that industry and urbanisation bring: order, discipline, conformity and their strict enforcement by new human masters not allied to religion. The lives of children in particular were under severe control by industry – child labour in those days was common – and certain occupations such as chimney-sweeping were the exclusive preserve of child workers. The Romanticists’ revolt against the city and factory and the values these brought to British life can be seen in both their poetry and the lives they led: both Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth moved to the country to live and William Blake himself constantly railed against the abuse of children as workers and the consequences such work had on their health in works like “Jerusalem”. Sometimes the Romanticists’ work had quite dire results for the poets themselves: while they were never dragged off to jail and tortured there by thuggish police or their early 19th century equivalents, a couple of them did skate perilously close to personal danger, John Clare suffering a mental breakdown after seeing the countryside of his childhood fenced off and enclosed by government authorities so that he was unable to ramble through the open space at leisure (though it’s quite possible that his incarceration in a mental asylum was done as much to shut him up as it was for his mental well-being) and William Wordsworth risking his life when he lingered too long in his beloved Lake District area and had to spend the night exposed to near-freezing conditions similar to what his father experienced and died from years earlier when Wordsworth had been a child.

The film concludes with mention of the 1815 Mount Tambora volcanic eruption in Indonesia which spewed so much volcanic dust into the upper atmosphere that climates around the Earth were affected for a whole year afterwards and temperatures dropped several degrees. The summer of 1816 was cold and often dark (though sunrises and sunsets must have been brilliant in their reds and oranges) and this helped to inspire the birth of Gothic literature, exemplified by Mary Shelley’s novel “Frankenstein”, itself a highly Romanticist work in its plea for all humans to be treated equally, fairly and with compassion, no matter what their origins or background may be. The novel also contains a warning within against the misuse of science and for scientists to take responsibility for their work and the results that ensue. Fittingly the part of the documentary that deals with “Frankenstein” contain archived BBC footage of machines at work and scenes of exploding bombs that might have come straight out of an Adam Curtis documentary.

While the film has much to commend it as a historical document, it ignores the negative influences that the Romanticist reverence for nature might have had for British society and culture. It disregards the possibility that the land enclosures which angered Clare so much and helped bring on his mental collapse were carried out by the government in part to preserve the natural environment for the benefit of the aristocracy and its pleasures as a result of that class’s nostalgia for a pre-industrial Britain, its distaste for industry and its values, and its worry that the lower orders might bring that industry (and with it, democracy and egalitarian values) to rural areas and despoil them. There is no suggestion in the film that the Romanticist poets felt much solidarity with members of the working class other than children whom the poets idealised as angelic innocents and one could draw the conclusion, wrongly perhaps or not, that Blake and others like him were as remote from the Great Unwashed as the ruling classes were and that the poets’ life-styles were still dependent on having servants cook and clean for them.

Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 2: A Modern Game): film could be sub-titled “A Mug’s Game”

Sally Aitken, “Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 2: A Modern Game)” (2011)

Continuing briskly and trippingly from Episode 1 “A Genius Idea”, Sally Aitken leads viewers into the 20th century, with frequent jumps back into the 19th century, with her visual history of department stores and their influence on Western culture. Using as before a mix of interviews, fictional dramatisations and archival footage, Aitken casts a sometimes critical eye over various social and occasionally political issues and manages to fit in brief biographies of three major department store founders. The film style is light-hearted, flitting from one topic to another in a way not always logical or natural, but with just enough depth to stimulate coffee-table or next-day water-cooler discussion.

Whereas Episode 1 presented department stores as liberating for women in the 19th century, even as promoters of female political emancipation and participation, Episode 2 casts the same phenomenon as enforcing a new kind of bondage in a myriad ways both physical and psychological: topics touched on include the commodification of women’s bodies via the adoption of standard sizes and the elevation of physical beauty as a major crutch for female self-esteem through the advertising of cosmetics, perfumes and clothing. Department stores become amateur psychologists in developing and promoting desire and social conformity; they also start shaping cultural rituals and values. Through the example of a major US department store founder John Wanamaker, who originally intended to train as a religious Presbyterian preacher, department stores turn religious holidays into opportunities for drumming up retail business and profit, and even create new holidays such as Mother’s Day to encourage more spending. Retailers discover children as a market in themselves to be targeted and play on parents’ anxiety and guilt that they’re not doing enough for their precious bairns by promoting children’s goods as educational or beneficial.

In the process of encouraging and feeding desire, department stores give rise to new concepts and values: instant gratification of material wants, built-in obsolescence in products, the use of season-based fashions and trends, social competition in purchasing and flaunting goods, an obsession with individuality (and at the same time an obsession with being part of the middle class – a concept that might have been created by department stores themselves – and fitting into that class) and growth. The programme unfortunately doesn’t extend its investigation of department stores’ manipulation of cultural values into the consequences of that manipulation: the excessive waste of resources in making products that last only one or two years before they must be tossed aside for new products that self-styled fashion leaders declare by statement or example that people must have; equally, the exploitation of resources, any human labour involved in making new products; and the pollution that results from the manufacturing process or from outdated or superseded products dumped into landfills. It’s probably beyond the scope of the programme to investigate how the particular cultural values promoted by department stores intersect and agree neatly with the values of capitalist economic systems and debt-based / growth-oriented financial systems though there’s a very superficial look at how department stores have played a role in the social acceptance of consumer debt and how that might have led to the current global debt crisis.

A further issue the documentary looks at is department stores’ attitudes to worker rights: department stores have often been leaders in granting their usually large workforces benefits and good working conditions but the reason is not necessarily altruistic – the generosity is usually due to the store management’s desire to prevent workers from forming trade unions.

The emphasis in the film moves away from France to Australia, Britain and the US through brief biographies of major department store founders such as Sidney Myer who fled pogroms in Russia and came to Melbourne, reinventing himself as a patriotic Australian while establishing the Myer chain of stores across Australia; Harry Gordon Selfridge, the American who earned a grand fortune through Selfridges in London but threw it all away on gambling and ended up dying in penury; and John Wanamaker, the pious Christian who turned Christmas and Easter and their respective rituals and symbols into money-making opportunities.

The film does not make any predictions as to the future of department stores or shopping as a cultural activity generally and I think this is a major flaw in the documentary. New forms of technology such as 3-D printing have the potential to allow people to create customised versions of products and send department stores, reliant on mass production and enforcing social conformity, into historical oblivion. There was an opportunity in this second episode for Aitken to look at the dark side of the department store as a cultural phenomenon and how it has shaped our thinking, judgement and morals, and that opportunity, although not missed, is not exploited to the full.

 

Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 1: A Genius Idea): how department stores both freed and enslaved women

Sally Aitken, “Seduction in the City: the Birth of Shopping (Episode 1: A Genius Idea)” (2011)

Ah, shopping – the bane of modern life or the portal to all our fantasies and aspirations? In this informative and entertaining documentary, writer and director Sally Aitken traces the history of a particular kind of department store from its early beginnings in the mid-1800s in France into the global retail and cultural phenomenon it is today, and how it has shaped Western society and attitudes. In the first episode “A Genius Idea”, Aitken investigates the effect glamorous department stores selling desire and fantasy in the nineteenth century had on the lives of women, especially middle class and working class women, and how these institutions not only gave women financial freedom in the forms of jobs and purchasing power but also the freedom to demand political and economic rights.

The story begins in France with Aristide Boucicart, originally from a poor family in Normandy, who arrives in Paris looking for a job and works his way up in retail with the aim of owning his own store selling a variety of goods. In 1838 he opened “Le Bon Marché” as a small shop; it grew to be a fixed-price department store by the 1850s. After 1855, Boucicart’s innovations in marketing became noticeable: he introduced the idea of customers browsing and touching products in the store, the use of price tags, stunning product displays, discount sales, a place to park bored male companions where they could read newspapers and (in 1856) shopping catalogues. Perhaps the most significant innovation was his targeting of women as the store’s core customers, an idea quite alien for French society at the time.

Traditionally women had been viewed by the Roman Catholic Church, science and academia, and society generally as weak, irrational and stupid, and therefore to be kept at home if possible. At the same time prostitution was rife with most working women apparently engaged in it (and with plenty of male clients to cater for). The general view of women was as either pure and chaste Madonna, content to stay at home, or as lascivious whores of loose morals. The social life of women, especially middle class women, was restricted. Boucicart’s ambitions to create a store that sold desires and catered to women’s fantasies for beautiful things (made available by technologies that permitted mass production), in surrounds of glamour and refinement, dealt a blow to traditional social attitudes. His flagship Paris store grows bigger and bigger: in 1867, the store moved to new digs designed by Louis Auguste Boileau; in the 1870s, the store moved into a multi-level building made possible with the latest building technologies using iron and plenty of glass, courtesy of engineering consultant Gustave Eiffel (yes, the father of the tower). Customers who patronised the store were awed by the sunlight that flooded through glass ceilings and the opulent furnishings and displays of goods they encountered.

In addition, Boucicart employed working class women from the provinces (they were cheap labour) and through him these women gained independence, financial freedom and the opportunity to observe and imitate the wealthy female customers they served. Many such workers who passed through Boucicart’s employ later returned home and opened their own businesses: in this indirect way, these women were the shock troops for the cultural unification of France and its domination by Paris.

Boucicart’s success inspired his rivals to set up equally glamorous stores in Paris and his particular concept spread to the US (where department stores had existed since the 1850s and provided Boucicart with much creative inspiration) and to Britain where Harry Gordon Selfridge, an American retailer, established that country’s first major LBM-styled department store Selfridges in 1909 (Britain having had department stores of a plainer style since 1734). At about the same time, a Russian immigrant to Australia, Sidney Myer, established Myers Emporium in Melbourne peddling Boucicart’s concept, Australia having had department stores of some sort or another since 1825.

The film’s tone is light, entertaining and breezy and dramatised recreations of fictional French shoppers going berserk in Boucicart’s recreated store together with interviews of academics and 3-D computer animations of “Le Bon Marché” enliven the voice-over narration and fact-dropping in the unlikely event that it ever gets dry. Particular social and cultural topics are worked into the narrative: a fun fact is that department stores helped facilitate women’s freedom and improved their health by providing public toilets which in turn reduced the incidence of cystitis (a common complaint partly caused by holding one’s bladder too long due to the lack of privies in private). The provision of toilets outside the home meant that women could spend more time away from home (and the watchful eye of relatives, hubby and the in-laws) and in department stores which in turn gave rise to rumours that women were using department stores as dating agencies or places of secret rendezvous with lovers.

Also worked into the narrative is the role department stores played in democratising society: women of different social classes could mix in the one physical space, enabling lower class women to observe and emulate their upper class sisters, and encouraging an incipient sisterhood that would explode into a drive for political and economic rights and the right to vote. Suffragettes in Britain in the early years of the twentieth century used tea-rooms in department stores to hold meetings and rallies; the male owners of these stores were only too happy to allow such meetings to take place and even to let suffragettes sell pamphlets to shoppers outside stores – after all, their custom depended on making women happy. The campaigners deliberately emphasised a glamorous and elegant appearance as weapons to attract supporters for their cause although they were also aware that women workers in department stores earned low wages and their working conditions were often arduous and involved heavy physical work.

In all, the documentary is a delight to watch, visually appealing, if very fuzzy and vague on the details of who actually founded department stores and where they were first set up: depending on how department stores are defined, Britain, the United States and France can all claim to be the first countries to have these institutions. There is a lot of flitting among different countries and time-lines which can be a little confusing for young viewers. Time quickly raced by while I was watching this documentary, so engrossing and lively it is.

An exceedingly demeaning portrait of a significant feminist / anarchist figure in “Emma Goldman – An exceedingly dangerous woman”

Mel Bucklin, “Emma Goldman – An Exceedingly Dangerous Woman” (2003)

This portrait of Emma Goldman, the American woman anarchist / political activist / writer / feminist / advocate for socially liberal causes, is as much a survey of politics and society in the United States from the 1890s to 1940, the year of Goldman’s death, as it is of her life; it also reflects in its narrative some unpleasant aspects of our current society of which more will be said later. The style of the documentary is deceptively straightforward: it’s a chronology of Goldman’s life, her work and the people she worked with, told through a mixture of photograph and picture stills, interviews with historians, artists and writers, and re-enactments of significant episodes in Goldman’s life, all laid over by voice-over narration. The pace is leisurely and the narrator and interviewees speak and explain particular aspects of Goldman’s life clearly yet paint a very complex picture of Goldman, the life she led, the contrast between her beliefs and ideals on the one hand and the reality she lived on the other, and how she navigated her way through a conservative society that was (and in many ways still is) unready for her politics, thinking and message of sexual equality in both private and public life. The film is part of the “American Documentary” series issued and distributed by PBS.

Goldman’s life is picked up in her teens when she has already emigrated to the US from Russia, has started working in a factory and is becoming political and radicalised through associations with radical workers and after-hours socialising. In those days (1850s – early 20th century), talk of revolution, socialism and better working and living conditions was popular with working class people (or it just seems that way from the viewpoint of our current self-absorbed cocoon society). After a short failed marriage, Goldman moves to New York City and meets anarchists Alexander Berkman and Johann Most: Most starts training Goldman as a public speaker and Berkman becomes her friend and eventual lover. Goldman and Berkman are involved in a factory strike which indirectly leads to Berkman being sentenced to 20 years in jail (the actual cause is that he tried but failed to kill the factory manager). Goldman later breaks with Most, and keeps up a busy life that includes jail-time (during which she studied nursing and read many books), lecturing in the US and abroad, writing a magazine called Mother Earth, and being implicated by Leon Czolgosz in his murder of US President William McKinley. After Berkman is released from jail, having served 14 years, the couple try but fail to pick up their relationship; Goldman later marries a doctor called Ben Reitman (the marriage is short-lived). She switches from advocating revolution and worker freedom to talking feminism, freedom in love, sex and marriage, and birth control. Come World War I and Goldman and Berkman oppose conscription; after the war, they are jailed briefly as traitors with the option of deportation. They go to the Soviet Union to live but although they follow politics and events in that country, they become disillusioned with Lenin’s government and its methods of repression and leave the country. Goldman spends the rest of her life travelling in Europe and Canada, lecturing and writing on various topics, maintaining her friendship with Berkman until his death in 1936, before dying herself in Canada in 1940.

The film concentrates heavily on events in Goldman’s life and not much on her anarchist philosophy or other writing and on her thoughts and opinions on subjects such as capitalism, fascism, feminism, prisons and criminal justice, atheism and homosexuality. Goldman’s life is split in phases depending on her relationships with men; there’s nothing about any women who might have been significant influences on her life. The structuring of Goldman’s chronology in this way does the woman a great disservice, given that she believed strongly in men and women being equal partners in all aspects of life even if she didn’t necessarily always practise what she preached. One woman who must have been a great influence on Goldman’s beliefs was the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger whom Goldman supported and whose pamphlets she helped distribute. Some significant events are brushed out of the film completely: there is no mention of the Spanish Civil War (1936 – 9) in which Goldman took great interest and followed. Makes you wonder what else the film deliberately left out. There is no mention of Goldman’s influence on philosophical thought, feminist theory or popular culture after her death.

My impression is that the film packages Goldman’s life in a way that makes it palatable to a politically and culturally conservative audience and pigeon-holes her as an idealist naive about the reality of human nature and the society around her, and its capacity for improvement; this fits in with current ideas about humans as biologically rather than culturally predetermined in their behaviour. Goldman is made to sink into a funk after Berkman’s death and the ultimate message seems to be that even a rebel like Goldman needs a man psychologically if not physically to give meaning and structure to her life. Goldman’s continuing interest in politics, her opposition to World War II and her disgust at late-1930s life and society in Britain and France which led her to retreat to Canada to live are glossed over. It’s as if Goldman is just an interesting minor footnote in American political, social and cultural history and is mentioned in a documentary series aimed at the general public because some kids in high school might have to do a project on a historical American female personality.

Recipe for Murder: an entertaining look at thallium poisoning craze in society traumatised by post-war social changes

Sonia Bible, “Recipe for Murder” (2010)

Contrary to what most people think about the 1950’s, the decade or the early part of it at least wasn’t a halycon period of peace, stability and prosperity for people in most Western societies. The Communists had come to power in China in 1949 and were soon fighting a proxy war against the US and its allies in Korea. The Soviet Union had tested its first nuclear weapon in 1949 and there were fears worldwide that that country and the US would soon fight a war with nuclear bombs which would result in deadly radiation spreading over the planet. In the US itself, Senator Joseph McCarthy and others had tapped into fears about Communist subversion to pursue an agenda of finding and eliminating opinions and points of view that dissented from or were deemed dangerous to a narrow conservative political agenda that privileged corporate business interests over others.

In Australia there were fears of invasion from China or the newly independent Indonesia, headed by President Sukarno who then was considered in much the same way as Libya’s Colonel Gadhafi is now: a maverick, crazy despot with suspect loyalties and ambitions. In such a jittery, nervous context, the mood was ripe for a scare, however laughable it might look today, and in 1953 Sydney was caught up in a thallium-poisoning frenzy which is the focus of Sonia Bible’s droll and entertaining documentary “Recipe for Murder”. This hour-long feature mixes dramatisations, old newsreel films, a terse narrative by Dan Wyllie and a talking-head style of interviewing (in which viewers see historians, crime writer Peter Doyle, witnesses and retired police talking to an offscreen interviewer asking unknown questions) into an informative mix that captures something of the panic of the time and flavours it with a hard-boiled detective crime fiction feel. Several social issues such as the position of women generally, society’s attitudes to marriage and domestic violence, and stereotypes of how women should behave and the public reaction to news of women who didn’t behave demurely, in a period in which women had worked in factories during World War II and were expected to give up their jobs and independence and retire quietly back into domesticity when the fighting was done, are briefly investigated.

The documentary is structured around the cases of three Sydney women who were arrested in 1953 and charged with murder or attempted murder by thallium poisoning. At the time, a rat plague had broken out and there were fears that the bubonic plague scare which erupted in 1900 would do so again. Rat poison in which thallium – a soft white metal toxin banned elsewhere in Australia at the time – was the main ingredient was commonly used, being slow-acting and having no smell or taste that would warn wily rats. The first murder case was that of Yvonne Fletcher who was charged with murdering two husbands; her trial was followed closely by the tabloids and the Sydney Morning Herald which diligently (though perhaps inadvisedly) printed details of how the poisoning was carried out and what the symptoms of thallium poisoning were. Next up was Caroline Grills, a kindly aunt who made tea, cakes and biscuits for relatives and in-laws, and inherited some of their properties whenever they died. Grills was charged with murdering four people, all of them related to her in some way, and of attempted murder of a fifth person. The third and most sensational case was of Veronica Monty, charged with the attempted murder of her son-in-law, local celebrity football-player Bob Lulham, with whom she was having an affair; she admitted she had tried to kill herself but had accidentally given her laced cup of tea to Lulham.

Stylish and minimal re-enactments of the three women’s lives in the manner of film noir, emphasising the circumstances that led to their actions and arrests, combined with old photographs and recreations of newspaper headlines, illustrate the gritty tenor of life in Sydney and the severely limited range of options available to women in trouble. Fletcher’s two husbands had been alcoholics prone to violence; Monty likely suffered from depression as, two years after being acquitted of attempted murder, she took her own life; as for Grills, nothing is known of her motives for killing her stepmother or her in-laws, but probably she harboured repressed feelings of rage and revenge under a warm and smiling mother-hen facade. Fletcher and Monty are tragic figures, victims of a set of beliefs that decreed married women must put up and shut up and bear their burdens stoically; in addition, Fletcher had a reputation as a floozy and no doubt many people saw her conviction and death sentence as fit justice for previous bad behaviour. As for Grills, her case could well be the stuff of genteel whodunnit mystery fiction if it hadn’t been real; indeed, in the manner of whodunnits, the first person to suspect her of poisoning her victims isn’t a trained detective but her son-in-law. The case is very disquieting and, if we knew of Grills’s motives for dispatching her relatives with poisoned tea and cakes, could be blackly hilarious, sinister and malevolent, depressing or even all of these. Serial killers don’t usually come in the form of middle-aged grandmothers offering warm scones and biscuits and cups of tea!

The whole program is very tight and breathlessly packed with information and memorable images that mimic the sensational reporting of the time. It seems much shorter than its hour-long length and the individual stories and their social and cultural context, not to mention the dark mirror they hold up to society and its assumptions about women and family life, perhaps deserve a deeper treatment than what the documentary is able to give. The publicity the three trials attracted encouraged other people to use thallium either as a murder weapon or a method of suicide until eventually its sale as rat poison was banned. The two detectives Ferguson and Krabe who worked on the three cases are intriguing characters in their own right: feted as celebrities and heroes in the press, they later came to be known as two of the most corrupt police in New South Wales. You wonder what it was about Sydney, its people and culture, and the nature of crime there, that made these men’s star fall so low.