LAST NIGHT

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The Independent Culture
The most compelling sight on television in the last week was that of an American Phantom jet hitting a concrete slab at 500 miles an hour. This brief clip - a found masterpiece of technological art - was film of a test on a blast-proof wall for a nuclear power station. But in its mesmerising slow-mo beauty - the plane magically atomising into a cloud of flame-dappled dust - it achieved something more sublime than mere telemetry or data output. It was one of those things you just wanted to watch again and again - an appetite recognised by the programme makers who obligingly played it back several times. The sequence appeared last Friday in Testing, Testing, a collection of destruction test footage which opens up yet another seam in the recorded reality genre - alongside police-dashboard cameras and closed-circuit surveillance - and which was presented by Carol Vorderman, currently Number One in the "Vaguely scientific but not intimidatingly rigorous" chart.

Which is presumably why she was also chosen to front BBC2's recent computer demystification series and also Hot Gadgets (BBC1), an exploitation of the popularity of useless gizmos, the foam-flecks that appear when consumer capitalism turns rabid. The series shrewdly taps into the world of catalogue culture, a realm of remote-control trouser presses and no-drip teabag extractors, and it promises to sort out the devices that work from those that don't. There is a powerful flavour of the latest thing, but without the faintest threat of edification - a kind of Tomorrow's World Lite. Unfortunately, Hot Gadgets is so feebly out of touch with its own field that it still believes the rhyming antithesis to be the last word in media accessories. As a result, Carol Vorderman uses the phrase "Is it hot or is it not?" so many times that it begins to feel like some North Korean exercise in mental destabilisation. "No!" you scream "Not again! I'll tell you anything, you heartless bastards!". Even the presenter gets tetchy, and she's being paid large sums of money to act as the brainwasher: "So, panel," she asked at one point, "do you think the massage chairs - as if we couldn't guess - are hot or not?" After the verdict is delivered, Carol then has the task of thinking up yet another calorific paraphrase for "excellent". One gadget was described as "so hot it's smokin'", while the hand-held Global Positioning Satellite navigator (I want one, I freely confess) was so hot "they think it's steaming". This becomes infuriating halfway through the first programme, so the cumulative effect over a series hardly bears thinking about. The clumsy and inflexible architecture is indicative of where the programme goes wrong - not in its identification of object lust as an untapped area of interest, but in its failure to see that rapid consumption of facts is part of the pleasure. Because they adopt the manners of a game show - ordinary viewers getting involved, catchphrases, studio audience participation - they barely have time for the gadgets. In the course of a half-hour programme they consumer tested just four items, a hopeless strike rate for any greedy technophiles watching - particularly as the testing sequences themselves are rather grim concoctions of amateur comedy, with stagey scenes of exasperation and disbelief.

The Voyage of the Matthew, which ended last night with a live broadcast of the boat's arrival in Newfoundland (BBC1), was made possible by gadgets. Peter Snow told you so in the first episode, coming alive in the ship's hold as he explained that the camera crew would be "editing the pictures they take on this laptop editing machine - it's the first of its kind in the world. And each week, an RAF Nimrod will fly over the Atlantic, locate the Matthew, and then the film crew will beam up the pictures they've taken using this microwave aerial." The results of this ingenuity were mixed - it gave a vivid sense of what an endeavour such a voyage must have been but, despite interesting excursions into Tudor shore life, it was just a bit too successful in its account of the unchanging routine of an Atlantic crossing.

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