REVIEW / Coming and going in Papua New Guinea

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
AT TIMES like last night, when almost all Earthlings, several million Martians and the few thousand Venusians who can pick up reception are tuned into a sporting event on television, it's instructive to see what the other channels are doing. We don't know what was on the other side in Ulan Bator, but Channel 4 imaginatively went straight for the women's vote with two movies about spunky heroines. BBC 2 seemed to have thrown in the towel with one of Robert De Niro's drippier films, but made a dramatic 11th- hour surge with an episode of Under the Sun that was, quite frankly, an anthropological study of oral sex.

With this programme, it's often a case of which tribe from Papua New Guinea gets to reveal its symbolic rites this week. This time, though, it became clear that nothing was being revealed at all, or at least nothing to those who have suffered a private education.

The Sambia people have strict codes of sexual segregation, which involve the separation of seven-year-old males from their mothers. They are taken into the woods, where they are forced to swallow semen and get beaten a lot. When they get back home, they have been taught that women are polluted, especially during menstruation. When they marry, explained one youth blithely, 'it is because your penis wants it', although the only penetrative sex they will contemplate is oral, because through swallowing semen the women gain strength for childbirth. The act of coition itself is so shaming they have to go off to the woods to sow their seed. And when they do, common to male predatorial behaviour the world over, they come and they go.

It sounds like these boys could use a visit from Andrea Dworkin. The wives are not exactly getting militant, but they are insisting that 'the mouth is for eating'. The arrival of the Seventh Day Adventists only confirmed their belief in this revolutionary concept. The Adventists tended to take up the, as it were, missionary position. Now Sambia rituals are obsolescent, so the obvious thing was to commission the BBC to make the video.

BBC 1 unveiled its latest imitation of populist television with Pets Win Prizes, in which - yes - pets compete for prizes. The reason why ITV will always remain streets ahead here is that it will never employ anyone like Danny Baker to front its fripperies. Baker specialises in wallowing in tackiness, but there's an undertow of irony in his delivery which informs even the most uncritical viewer that this presenter thinks his show stinks.

As usual, he's right. 'This is television]' Baker yells during a race called 'Those Fabulous Ferrets', in which three ferrets race along a tube. 'If you've just tuned in, it's the BBC,' he said during 'Beat the Cluck', in which three hens see who can go the longest without clucking (when disqualified, it's told to cluck off, like a bad tabloid headline). 'And it's all paid for by you, the licence- fee payer]' Baker could have shouted during a particularly lacklustre round of 'My Dog Plays Snooker, Really', in which it turned out that none of the three dogs could play snooker, really.

While the participants performed sluggishly, their owners behaved as it they had benefited from more than generous hospitality facilities - always the sign of a truly desperate producer. And on a personal note, practically all the animals had names ending in 'y' - Sophy, Lucy, Twiggy etc - but there was a rare exception in a ferret called Jasper. That's no name for a ferret. According to its owner, this hapless creature has a sense of humour. 'You couldn't stick him in the audience, could you?' gagged Baker. Hang on, Jaspers don't laugh at just anything.