From animal passions to killer bees; TELEVISION

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The Independent Culture
First came the shows about animals - and millions tuned in. Then they made the documentaries about hospitals - the nation turned on. Children, too, when captured on camera, boosted the ratings. It was all so heart- warming, so innocent and yet so dramatic. What, then, could be more natural than to want to combine these crowd-pullers in one programme? So we got children in hospital, animals in hospital, children with animals, and now, finally, all three together, as children learn to treat animals in hospital.

The children in Vets' School (BBC1, Mon) are, of course, quite old. But the students at Bristol University's Veterinary College are young enough, sparkling enough, naive enough, to attract that uncomplicated affection which their dumber counterparts (sick beasts and sick kids) can also engender. And, as episode one showed, it is quite a combination.

At the heart of last week's programme were the intertwining stories of Trude and Heidi. One is a beautiful blonde Golden Retriever, suffering from a mystery illness, and who may not have long to live; the other is a beautiful blonde golden Norwegian with an easily diagnosed problem, who may also not be with us for very long. Both are being treated at the Vets' School.

Heidi (the dog) lies there, unmoving save to lick her lips. "She is a very sick dog," says one vet of her. Trude (the Norwegian), by contrast, bounces around enthusiastically in her efforts to become qualified. She is a very sick student, seems to be the verdict.

One of Trude's problems is that she keeps getting shat upon; first - and copiously - by a brown cow, whose back hooves she is clipping; and then (even more substantially) by her supervisor, Dr Kieran O'Brian. Dr O'Brian is hatchet-faced, thin-lipped; a whipper-in for the local hunt, and therefore a candidate for the Cruella de Vil Award for Kindness to Animals. And Norwegians. We find him sitting discussing Trude with one of his colleagues. "When she used the knives, I wasn't really sure she knew what she was aiming for," says the colleague. The thin lips set in a tight little smile.

Meanwhile, a blind bunny has been brought in. The rabbit doesn't look great, and neither does the owner. A vetty discussion about the quality of life ensues, which inexplicably ends in a decision to put the floppy eared animal down, but keep the owner alive.

Heidi was still hanging on though, and so was Trude. "Give her a borderline pass. It's a problem, not a disaster," says the big boss to Dr de Vil.

But now Trude's plaits are bobbing around a tiny kitten, as the hapless Norsewoman tries unsuccessfully to anaesthetise it with a hypodermic. She keeps missing, and I wonder whether something larger wouldn't be easier. A rhinoceros, or a whale, perhaps. Being able to use a needle is "quite an important feature of being a vet," her woman supervisor says gently. And I'm desperate to know what happens next week. Will Heidi survive? Will Trude?

If, however, she does fail, Trude can always go into bee-popping. This, as I discovered from Equinox: Killer Bees (C4, Sun), is when you hold a male bee under the abdomen and pop it, which "exposes its genitalia, and also kills the bee".

Now, bees are just far enough away from homo sapiens for me not to have crossed my legs when this information was revealed. I felt much more empathic, however, when we were told that male bees have to mount females at a speed of 20mph and an altitude of 10 feet; ejaculate with an audible "pop" and, finally, fall to the ground dead, leaving their penises behind. I, too, have met women like that.

The programme itself was an interesting oddity, since the script was seemingly written by two entirely different people who never spoke to each other. Number One wrote the story of how "money from honey created the disaster of the killer bees". "One afternoon in 1957," apparently, the attempt of a mad Brazilian scientist to create a superbee in Latin America went badly wrong. A new race of killer bees gradually spread northwards until, in 1993, it crossed the Rio Grande and threatened America (at which point, of course, it became a genuine problem).

"The alien invader cast a shadow over the peaceful town of Apache Junction," the commentary intoned in Welles-like fashion, and poor olde Mary Williams got hers. For these bees attack anything vaguely threatening (like aged aunts and clockwork dogs) and sting it to death. Thus did "man's taste for honey trigger the disaster".

Except, as Writer Two pointed out, in the last 10 minutes of the show, there hadn't actually been a disaster. "The bee's reputation as a killer is greatly exaggerated," we suddenly discovered. In the whole of Brazil there are only two to three fatalities a year; you practically have to lock yourself in a small box with a complete hiveful in order to get killed. And all the beekeepers in the continent are thrilled, and are coining it with the extra honey production.

I think the two of them should have got together and decided from the outset whether this was a story of Mad Scientists Destroy The World, or The Panic That Need Never Have Been. You cannot really have both.

Sleepy wasps, perhaps, but no superbees are to be found in The English Country Garden (BBC2, Fri). This series is presented by upper-crust garden designer Rosemary Verey. With fluffy grey hair like cotinus, highly variegated foliage and a sturdy trunk, Rosemary was clearly grown in a sunny and generously mulched part of life's garden. You can tell this from her well- pruned accent, the fact that she is followed around by a kind of gardening caddie in a flat cap, carrying her plants and trowel, and statements like "statues add another element - an important element - in a garden".

This week she was off to Highgrove, scene of royal tiffs and rumpy-pumpy. Not that this reputation affected Rosemary. "I'm lucky enough to go to Highgrove fairly often," she said, "I'm also lucky to have the privilege of helping in parts of the garden." If she loves putting in a bit of free spadework, she can come and help in my garden; although once we put the statue in, there won't actually be any room for flowers.

HRH was there to show her around. But for this nice, tormented man, all his pleasures seemed to be marred by anguish. Looking at the lichen in his moss garden: "Why has it grown like that on that stone, but not on that one?" he asked in agonised tones. And: "Why is the water so revolting?" about his pond. "I just don't understand!" Finally Rosemary could stand it no longer. "Let's only look at the nice things," she told him.

It was all the kind of harmless fantasy that we members of the National Trust experience when visiting Sissinghurst and other wonderful gardens, but a nasty part of me really wanted to let Trude and her dibber loose on Ms Verey's euphoria.

Trude's brother seems to be busy making documentaries for TV. How else can we explain what has happened to the once brilliant Cutting Edge documentary series? Just three years ago it gave us the Golf Club, the Shoplifter and Graham Taylor. This week it offered Family Feuds (C4, Mon), a shoddy and poorly judged collection of tales, supposedly about what happens when families fall out.

Actually, it was not about family feuds at all. One section was a completely one-sided account of harassment of one sister by another; the second was a ludicrous story of poltergeists (complete with reconstructed exploding laundry baskets); the third was an incomprehensible tale of broken video cameras and prison sentences; and the fourth a bizarre picture of Salford lowlife.

So why is a series that made popular masterpieces now transmitting populist trash? It may partially depend on how the programme-maker sees his or her subjects. In the week of the publication of the Cullen Report, Timewatch: Remember Aberfan (BBC2, Tues) took us back to the deaths of 116 children and 28 adults, and the following inquiry. There was not an adjective - no "appalling", "grief-stricken", "shocked", or "traumatised" - none of the cliche'd language that, by its repetition, somehow inoculates us against feeling. The bereaved parents, school friends and teachers were afforded the respect by the programme-makers, and given the time to be as complicated as us. And it's when documentarists stop seeing their subjects as "us" that their films become freak-shows.

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