REVIEW / An assortment of facts in search of a thesis

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
DESMOND MORRIS'S project in The Human Animal (BBC 1) is to make us better acquainted with ourselves, a task he begins by making us strange. As a naked man and woman walk through a crowded shopping centre, Morris elaborates on the peculiarity of the 'puny primate'. It is a chimpanzee's view of our inadequacies - oddly protruding nose, inside-out lips, no hair to speak of, gross swellings on the hindquarters. A beastly creature, in short, and so, Morris would argue, accessible to the patient methods of the zoologist - field observation and behavioural studies.

With this in mind, he set out a while ago to compile a complete lexicon of human gesture, the ultimate dictionary of global body language. Last night's opening programme to his new series (a pretty unabashed retread of Manwatching and The Naked Ape) consisted of a long browse through the work in progress, complete with illustrations. It was entertaining enough watching this anthology of humanity's tics, but it isn't long before you begin to wonder when he's going to get to the point - what central idea is actually concealed beneath this gaudy pile of fascinating facts?

In fact, Morris's mission strikes me as being slightly comical; it could easily be a satirist's invention, designed to mock the stamp-collecting diligence of scientists, their ability to get caught up in an earnest myopia. Certainly I found myself giggling a little as he provided a scholarly translation for a sequence in which people from around the world made obscene signs at each other, something like a very bad-tempered Benetton ad. And, at times, his enthusiasm makes him sound decidedly foolish. 'Body language is so powerful that it can change the course of history and affect the behaviour of millions of people,' said Morris, over footage of Hitler gesticulating wildly, as if the history of the Third Reich could be boilded down to some cunning hand signals.

'I've sometimes been accused of degrading mankind,' Morris said at the end, arguing that he doesn't see why any shame should attach to the perception that we are animals. The problem, though, is not reductionism but a general woolliness of purpose. At times, he seems to be arguing a case for a biological determinism, as when he describes the evolution of the smile out of primate grimaces of submission. At others, his evidence testifies to the peculiar power of human culture, over and above genetic inheritance; in Italy, you can draw a line on the map that separates those who signal 'no' by shaking their heads and those who use a sharp upwards movement of the head, a line that historically marks the limit of ancient Greek colonisation. Morris is clearly eloquent in the language of the body - I just wish I knew what he was trying to say.

No such problems with Speaking in Tongues (BBC 2), the first of six plays specifically conceived for the television studio. Tony Marchant's script was about words and their depleted ability to hold the truth in a world of synthetic feeling. It was not hesitant about bringing this to your attention. In the opening scene, Susan, a simulated lover, was talking dirty to a sex-line caller as her husband Joe, a simulated labourer, returned from the folk museum and her son, a simulated racing-driver, played with a video game. In case that didn't get through, the script was littered with self- consciously meaningful bits of dialogue. ('You keep dressing up the truth, Joe,' says Susan, as he removes his 19th-century tram-driver costume.) Watching the play was rather like reading a story that has been attacked with a fluorescent highlighter pen, an analytical experience rather than an emotional one.