In an already dire month for television (unless you're a sports fan) I sit down to watch Bypassed (RTÉ One, Tuesday) and think with creeping despair, It has come to this. Bypassed isn't a glossy new hospital drama set in a cardiology unit or a taut thriller about a mild-mannered employee going rogue when the top job goes to someone else. No, Bypassed is indeed about a road – the M7, from Dublin to Limerick – which, surely, could sound promising only to someone with an asphalt fetish or an engineering degree.
But I'm wrong, as it quickly turns out. Bypassed is an absorbing slice-of-life documentary directed by Gary Keane that's perfectly paced and beautifully filmed. And it is about the road – but only as an agent for change, how the 30-year-old motorway has affected people's lives.
When it opened the M7 took the passing trade out of a slew of small midlands towns and, critics would say, left them to die slowly and quietly. The background narrative to Bypassed comes mostly from snippets from RTÉ radio programmes showing that the national narrative around midlands towns is that they are dead. We hear little other than stories of boarded-up shops and unemployment, and Bypassed doesn't shy away from that reality when it films in Naas, Mountrath, Monasterevin, Borris-in-Ossory or any of the other towns bypassed by the M7.
But overall it seeks out the positive, locals who acknowledge the challenge and are trying to do something about it. In Monasterevin there's the Italian chip-shop owner Luigi and his son, keeping the business going. In Mountrath twin teenagers are campaigning for a youth cafe, and in Portlaoise a young publican brings his newborn boy back to their home above the pub. In Roscrea a baker explains how a growing drug problem in the town prompted a community meeting to get the issue into the open and figure out how to deal with it.
Time and again there’s a sense of communities looking to push back against the undeniably difficult economic realities that being a bypassed town brings. The programme was filmed over a year. It would be interesting to see a follow-up in 10 years.
About 10 minutes in to Just Call Me Martina (BBC One, Monday) the thing that hits with the force of a Centre Court serve is how many fabulous and powerful middle-aged and older women I'm watching on screen.
There's Martina Navratilova, of course, arguably one of the greatest tennis players of all time, but also her tennis friends Pam Shriver, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King, her dentist sister, Jana, and the documentary's interviewer, Sue Barker, among others.
The film is an intimate look at the life and current times of Navratilova, so naturally women of this age – she’s 59 – are out front, but it is a reminder all the same that it’s rare. It’s easy, though, to make a great film about Navratilova, because she’s such a fascinating, open and chatty subject. With Barker she travels back to her home town in what was Czechoslovakia, from where she defected, alone, to the US aged just 18, and follows her story through her record-breaking tennis career, during which she brought a new athleticism to women’s tennis, and her life now as a campaigner and gay activist.
The name of the programme comes from her wedding last year to the former Miss USSR Julia Lemigova. As the couple and their two young children zoom away from the reception, Martina driving, the youngest girl pops her head between the seats and asks, now that Martina has married her mom, what should she call her. And that's the answer: "Just call me Martina".
And then Martina and Julia notice that the girls are eating sweets, which they are not allowed, and there’s a row. From Soviet tanks on the streets of Prague in 1968 to strict parenting in a flashy Porsche in New York in 2015, this fascinating documentary covers a lot of ground.
In his science and nature programmes Brian Cox explores big things: not woolly mammoths or the Great Barrier Reef, although they might feature too, but the meaning of life, why are we here, and what is the universe.
He described his last major series for the BBC, Human Universe, as a love letter to the human race, so there's poetry in his approach. And maths, which, as he's a professor of particle physics, is his way of breaking down problems to solve them.
Happily, as he’s used to communicating difficult concepts to wide-eyed first-year undergraduates, he has the rare gift of being able to explain without patronising. And he smiles while he talks; he looks so young that his next series should be about human ageing. (That’d be a winner.) That he used to be a pop star means that his TV-presenter capital is stratospherically higher than that of your average professor of particle physics.
Now, with Forces of Nature with Brian Cox (BBC One, Monday), he has moved from niche BBC Two to BBC One, so a more prime-time, broader approach is required. The hook here is location, location, location. The idea is to explain how our planet's beauty is created by just a handful of forces. Symmetry, for example. All animals with brains are bilateral – they have a balanced distribution of body parts and organs – which makes moving and hunting easier. To show this he heads to the South Korean island of Jeju, where women in their 70s maintain the haenyeo tradition of free diving to harvest conch and octopus.
“We should be in a care home, watching TV,” says one, and they laugh as they tip themselves out of the boat and dive into the deep. I’m so enthralled by them that I forget the symmetry lesson I’m supposed to be learning.
We’re taken to Nepal to see honey being harvested – the hexagon-shaped hives are another example of maths in action – and then Florida, Spain and Newfoundland for other lessons in basic physics.
Snowflakes, Cox says, are “history made solid”. They are all different because each follows its own, slightly different path from the sky, which affects how they are built. “The whole of physics is contained in a snowflake,” says Cox, looking in wonder at a flake. (His wide-eyed awe is infectious.) “There’s gravity, electromagnetism to stick the water molecules together, nuclear forces and symmetry.” They have the same building blocks, and are merely different because of their history. “So it is with people: we are all made out of the same building blocks, but we are all different,” he says, his tone wistful and sweet, which is a good lesson in these troubled times. It’s all quite lovely and poetic.