Camera angles

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The Independent Culture
Television, they say, is all about words. But it does seem a shame to use only half a medium - it is like hopping on one leg when you can walk on two. Overdo it, and the screen becomes an embarrassing blank to be filled with odd shots while the commentary runs its course.

Examples of both hopping and strolling can be seen on television every night, and last night's Cold War (BBC2) had no problem finding a strong stock of pictures. Films about warfare in 20th century Europe, sadly, never will. But Neal Ascherson's deliberately factual and unmellifluous commentary script was often so terse that the programme maker, Martin Smith, seemed to feel obliged to use shots of emblematic intensity for the menial task of illustrating simple statements.

When Stalin attended a certain meeting, for instance, we saw him mounting the podium. The footage served only a simple idea - his arrival at the meeting. Our imaginations were not encouraged to dwell further. If the commentary had been more oblique, or if the shot had been given a moment to itself we might have been more keenly aware of this historic man, thuggish in his pompous white uniform, ascending the steps of power.

In the first episode of his repeated series The Nazis: A Warning From History (BBC2, Sunday), Laurence Rees treated archive footage better. Passages of commentary were balanced by images; we could rest our ears, and use our eyes. He even squeezed a narrative out of a few shots of an empty square in Germany - a trick often attempted but seldom brought off. This programme walked confidently towards its final sequence: colour film, never before seen, of the Nazi party celebrating Hitler's accession to Chancellor. The footage - all Brownshirts marching under blood-red swastikas - was chilling.

At the other extreme, that last refuge of a current affairs documentary, the pun, was serially perpetrated by Jill Robinson in her otherwise stylish Portillo's Progress (Sunday, Channel 4). For the changing mood of politics, cue a weather vane turning in the wind; talk of seeds of destruction prompted a shot of a flower head. Puns such as these take unexceptional verbal images and turn them into literal (and therefore nonsensical) visual ones.

This is neither hopping nor skipping; it is the simultaneous plonking of both feet - the filmic equivalent of a sack race. The previous week's Equinox: The Secret Life of the Dog (Tuesday, Channel 4) was altogether nimbler. The programme brooded on evolutionary strategies in homo sapiens, and the pictures were of dogs: the two got on just fine. The film told us how hungry pooches had domesticated humans, but also showed us their crafty eyes.