Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

The Human Face


This is a 4-part BBC mini-series hosted by John Cleese. Pardon me, it was hosted and written by Cleese. Some people at the IMDb discussion of this series were grumping that any science series these days has to be hosted by some “big name” who probably knows nothing about the subject. Aside from a great big “Who cares, if he makes it interesting?” that’s a slander to Mr. Cleese.

And I got news for you: it is well-known that you remember stuff a lot better if it is presented in an entertaining manner, and you can’t beat JC in that department. Sure, a bit of it is a little over the top—he was a Python, after all—but most is right on target; I laughed a lot. He spends one entire episode one inch tall and standing on Elizabeth Hurley’s face. I can think of worse jobs.

When the funny business stops, Cleese is a sympathetic and insightful interviewer of several people with either facial disfiguration or problems in facial recognition, like the man who can no longer recognize the faces of his family, or the guy who was convinced his mom and dad had been replaced by impostors. This is Oliver Sacks territory, and endlessly fascinating and horrific.

There are several famous faces involved in the project besides Hurley, and my favorite was our old friend David Attenborough. Here is a man who knows how to make documentaries—we’ve seen just about all of his, and are currently half-way through his 8-part The Life of Mammals—and knows the value of inserting himself into the shot, both for his own recognizability and to make the material intrinsically more interesting. He has a lot to say about the face, from a scientific point of view, and about fame, from a personal angle, as do Pierce Brosnan and Candice Bergen, who discuss the ups and downs of being gorgeous. William Goldman weighs in on movie stars and fame.

And how nice to see the wonderful Prunella Scales, Basil Fawlty’s wife Sybil on “Fawlty Towers,” after all this time! I just wish there had been more of her.