Great Thinkers in Their Own Words l The Highlands on Film (BBC4)

This is how to make inspired use of the archives, writes Rachel Cooke

The Daily Mail is busy (yet again) getting its M&S knickers in a twist about the new-look, post-budget-cuts BBC: apparently, it will feature many REPEATS (I love the way the Mail uses the word "repeats"; in the newspaper's uniquely hysterical lexicon, it's up there with "immigrant" and "dramatic weight gain"). I'm not sure, at this point, whether this will turn out to be the case - though I don't expect, as the Mail is also predicting, that we will see the revival of the Test Card any time soon. Besides, there's more than one way to use the archives, and, should you require proof of this, you need only turn on BBC4. This past week, the channel screened two documentaries that made surprising and extremely profitable use of ancient material: Great Thinkers in Their Own Words (1 August, 9pm) and The Highlands on Film (3 August, 8.30pm). I liked them both.

The latter needed a voice-over. But it was good fun even without one: midges, be-fringed cattle, men with strange accents explaining to plummy types from Down South how to pronounce the names of certain mountains. What was not to like? In particular, I relished the footage of highland games, film that took me straight back to my days as a cub reporter. When I worked in the Glasgow office of the Sunday Times - this was before mobile phones; we could not have phone-hacked Donald Dewar, Ally McCoist and Wee Jimmy Krankie even if we'd wanted to - my greatest scoop (actually, my only scoop) involved the unmasking of a highland games drugs cheat. But I digress. As a 30-minute slice of social history, the film worked a treat. By the end, I was on the point of spraying myself with Deet and getting on the next train to Fort William.

Great Thinkers in Their Own Words did have a voice-over - nice job, Rebecca Front - which was just as well because on screen, if not on the page, Jung and Freud are easy to muddle. I am not the world's greatest Freudian, but it was thrilling to see the only film of him that exists (he was "relaxing with his family" - though as any Freudian will know, no one ever really relaxes with their family). Meanwhile, in 1959, Jung was interviewed for the BBC by John Freeman. "We had long and very penetrating . . . conversations," Carl said of his encounters with Sigmund. His tiny pause after the word "penetrating" was beyond delightful.

There then followed a peculiar parade of other 20th-century "experts" in human behaviour: the psychiatrist R D Laing; the anthropologist Margaret Mead; the childcare guru Benjamin Spock (Geoffrey Rush, by the way, is a shoo-in for the Dr Spock biopic). We saw Desmond "Naked Ape" Morris on Parkinson, and Jane Goodall - chimpanzee-watcher extraordinaire - on Blue Peter. I was hoping she might make a treehouse from a washing-up bottle but, sadly, no dice.

What did all this add up to? Naturally, the film's talking heads made great claims for the work of these men and women; the psychologist Oliver James went so far as to say that it didn't matter a jot that Laing, whose area of expertise lay in the causes of madness, was a somewhat disturbed human being himself. But to me, their arguments, often contradictory, only added to my feeling that there are some aspects of human behaviour that will always lie beyond our understanding - and in this sense, the film was salutary.

Perhaps, in a quiet moment, the Prime Minister will catch it on BBC iPlayer. Our leader, you see, wants to know how happy we are, and with this in mind, the Office for National Statistics, since April, has asked 200,000 people such questions as: how anxious did you feel yesterday? Hmm. I do hope that the people with the clipboards know about Margaret Mead. In the 1920s, she went to Samoa, where she asked its inhabitants about their jolly private lives. To cut a long story short, they fobbed the poor dear off with a few smutty stories. Oh, yes. They come for us, these experts, in their white coats and their spectacles. But they have no real way of discovering if we're telling the truth and no means whatsoever of quantifying the old maxim that character is destiny.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 08 August 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Slum rule