The unpoliced zones of Brit TV are on a total high currently, as regards unexpected science, its hardcore and its social aspects – Monday 12 Jan on BBC2, C4 and C5 saw a fantastic run of documentaries, end to end (and not even clashing a bit!): on Chernobyl (in the 24 Hours that Changed the World series), Aristotle (Five Great Scientists), the Spitfire (don’t recall the name of this C4 9.00 slot, though it seems WW2-fixated) and, most unpromising but actually most poignant and fascinating, Ultimate Explosions.

The Chernobyl was mainly a reconstruction of the last hours of plant-workers whose actions led to the meltdown, explaining why the errors were made, and giving a grim sense of how little time it all took for educated, intelligent men to panic under a variety of pressures and get into a situation no one could get them out of. The Aristotle may not appeal: its gimmick is dramatic reconstructions as undertaken by the Two Ronnies or Benny Hill (speeded-up film, silly costumes and wigs, comedy noises on the soundtrack, deliberate “funny” anachronisms), but in its sly and possibly annoying (and definitely patronising) way it covered a surprising amount of ground, about the dawn of empiricism and scientific observation especially. The Spitfire doc – as well as a similar prog abt the Wright Brothers first flight on C5 last week – married modern-day Plane Nerds recreating and piloting the aircrafts in question (the Wright people spent TEN YEARS building theirs, then crashed it into some trees on its maiden flight!), with neatly explained stuff about the aeronautical issues being addressed. (Memorable Spitfire anecdote: its designer, battling cancer as he built his masterpiece, wanted to call it the “Shrew” – the RAF retitled it the “Spitfire” – the designer said “That’s just the kind of bloody silly name they would call it!” and promptly expired…)

Letting nerds loose into their passions, including recreation, seems to be a TV thing at the moment, and a VERY GOOD thing: Ultimate Explosions included a Fast Show type fellow who lets bombs off in fields… which is of course fun AND educational! Also very extremely unsettling, when it’s then explained that this-or-that actual real bomb in history was one hundred thousand times as massive. There are farmhouses in Belgium still sat above unexploded passageways full of bags of high explosive – which lightning may one day set off: the countryside all around is dotted with sizeable “manmade” lakes, ie WW1 explosion holes filled with rainwater. The practical blast effects of the Hiroshima bomb were based on the Manhattan Project’s ghoulishly close scientific study of the 1917 explosion of a munitions ship in Halifax in Canada, where the conditions – by dreadful chance – caused vast loss of life among the local townspeople, and (then) unimaginable damage (street after street of buildings flattened on both sides of a major world harbour, huge chunks of metal thrown for several miles upriver). It concluded with the Superpowers in the 50s managing to terrify themselves, in the hydrogen bomb size-race, into the first (and most successful) of the nuclear weapons above-ground test bans… The narrator had a distressingly perky voice, and kept saying things like “the biggest inadvertent explosion of all time!!” – but in a way this kind of ultra-detached schoolboy silliness and glee also told part of the story.