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Paul Whitelaw: Don’t miss The Responder and The Teacher, or Mary Beard on wanton bodily functions.

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It’s a week of uncomfortable but brilliant viewing in The Responder and The Teacher, writes TV critic Paul Whitelaw.

Mary Beard’s Forbidden Art – Thursday, BBC Two, 9pm
Mary Beard at Camden’s Public Toilets – (C) Lion Television.

The eminent art historian is on typically frank, thoughtful and engaging form in this new essay about the complicated nature of offence. She examines various works of art which have, for various reasons, been deemed unacceptable throughout history. Beard isn’t interested in judging whether the controversial works in question are intrinsically good or bad, she’s more concerned with finding out just why they’re considered taboo. Isn’t it the artist’s right to challenge and provoke? And who gets to decide whether they’ve crossed a line? There are no easy answers, but Beard does a good job of contextualising her nuanced multitude of ethical debates. NB: episode one contains scenes of wanton bodily functions. You have been warned.

The Responder – Monday to Wednesday, BBC One, 9pm

The best British drama of our nascent year so far, The Responder makes most contemporary cop shows look facile by comparison. It’s ‘gritty’, yes, but not in a self-important way. Writer Tony Schumacher has devised a compelling thriller which also happens to be a sensitive study of depression, anxiety, addiction and abuse. It’s an unvarnished depiction of a society that allows vulnerable people to sink into the shadows, with no hope or support in sight. And when it makes you laugh – which it sometimes does – it’s never at the expense of a fundamentally serious and sympathetic message. Schumacher ratchets up the tension in the final stages. A happy ending is far from guaranteed. Life is rarely so neat.

The Teacher – Monday to Thursday, Channel 5, 9pm
Sheridan Smith as The Teacher.

Stripped throughout the week, this stark four-part drama stars Sheridan Smith as a secondary school teacher whose chaotic personal life is in danger of unravelling completely. Jenna is good at her job. She’s liked and respected by most of her pupils and colleagues. But she drinks too much and suffers from blackouts. One drunken evening in a club, while celebrating a promotion, Jenna bumps into one of her favourite pupils. The next morning, she has no memory of what happened. But soon the police are knocking at her door. The Teacher broaches uncomfortable territory. Jenna is sympathetic, and yet she may be guilty of a terrible crime. An intriguing piece, and Smith, as always, is entirely convincing.

Janet Jackson – Monday and Tuesday, Sky Showcase, 9pm
Janet Jackson reflects on her life, career and family.

This four-part profile of the influential pop superstar is her attempt to set the record straight. Jackson doesn’t do many interviews; what do we really know about her? Not that it’s any of our business, but she endorsed this project so here we go. I only had access to episode one, but I’m pleased to report that she comes across as a nice, well-adjusted person. Which is remarkable under the circumstances. Jackson reflects upon her often tumultuous life and career in the company of various family members. And yes, she will comment on the controversy surrounding one of her brothers. Apologies in advance if this turns out to be a puff piece, but it does look quite interesting.

Race and Medical Experiments: What’s the Truth? – Monday, Channel 4, 10pm
Seyi Rhodes in the cotton fields of Alabama, where in the 19th century a gynaecologist performed experimental operations on enslaved women without their consent and without anaesthetic.

Journalist Seyi Rhodes presents this incisive and angering report about the history of unethical medical tests on people of colour. As we’ve seen during the COVID pandemic, some black and brown people have resisted vaccination. Their mistrust of medical science is understandably rooted in notorious historical cases such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Trial, in which doctors injected syphilitic African-American males with disguised placebos. They were used to study the effects of syphilis; there was never any intention of helping them. But, as Rhodes explains, that atrocity has since been exploited by prominent anti-vaxx grifters who thrive on the lucrative conspiracy theory circuit. Prepare to be appalled by yet another example of institutional racism and culture war madness.

Wonders of the Border – Tuesday, STV, 7:30pm
Sean Fletcher takes a flight in a homemade bi-plane. (c) ITV Cymru Wales</p> <p>

The Offa’s Dyke Path is a national trail that winds its way along the Welsh/English border for 177 miles. In this cloudless series, Good Morning Britain’s Sean Fletcher explores its verdant contours from the Severn Estuary to the Irish Sea. The latest leg involves an encounter with a farmer who feeds beer to his cows (don’t worry, it’s all above board apparently), and a visit to Powis Castle, which is full of treasures stolen by Britain during its conquest of India. According to the curator, they’re on display as a way of teaching visitors about the more insalubrious aspects of British history. On a lighter note, Fletcher also enjoys a trip in a bespoke biplane. All bases covered.

Would I Lie to You? – Friday, BBC One, 8:30pm
Pam Ayers steals the show on this week’s Would I Lie to You?  (C) Zeppotron, Brian J Ritchie

Describing this warhorse as the only TV comedy panel show worth bothering with may sound like very faint praise, but it’s a consistently cheerful distraction. Smiles, chuckles and, on a good night, bona fide big laughs are guaranteed. All aboard the fluctuating mirth express! Your guest panellists this week are poet Pam Ayers (who quietly steals the show), comedian Sarah Kendall, broadcaster Richard Osman, and Ghosts star Kiell Smith-Bynoe. Questions include: Did Osman once break into his own house while dressed as Darth Vader? Did Smith-Bynoe pretend to be a member of 50 Cent’s support act to get into a nightclub? And did Mitchell once play a prank on his wife using a small plastic wind-up penguin?

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