TELEVISION 999 (BBC1)

Michael Buerk knows all about rescues; 999 saved his career.
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The Independent Culture
Michael Buerk delivered probably the most influential news report in broadcasting history. A bit like Neil Armstrong or, more parochially, Geoff Hurst, he carries the knowledge that nothing he does will ever match the impact made by one day's work in Ethiopia. It can't be the lightest burden to lug into the office every day: no longer out in the field, he leans against the fence admiring the greener grass beyond it.

This explains his touching fidelity to 999. The catastrophes of which it tells have all already happened, some of them several years before. Terrifying for the participants, they have been tamed for our entertainment, packaged into a consumable narrative complete with dire portents and a cathartic ending.

When 999 first drew accusations of sensationalism, Buerk leapt to its defence, less, you sense, out of belief in the product than out of gratitude for the rescue operation it performed on his own career. For five series now it has been getting him out of the news room. Television presenters down on their luck would be strongly advised to send off for a 999 Careersavers Video Pack listing how the rescue was performed.

First of all, 999 teaches presenters to BE ALARMIST. Whether reporting from an Ethiopian drought or a suburban kitchen, Buerk's vocal role is always to sound as if he's just peeped round the corner and can see death lying in wait. But don't try this at home: it's unsafe to talk like this unless you're in front of a camera.

It helps to DRESS THE PART. For a report on a sailing accident in which a yachtswoman was trapped underwater, our intrepid presenter is got up like a marine commando in tight black polo neck. For the maritime safety- hints section he sensibly straps himself into a life jacket. But the piece de resistance is the miner's helmet with lamp.

On the news all Buerk's hands are allowed to do is shuffle bits of paper, but on 999 they SAW THE AIR. This is best illustrated in the piece about the tree surgeon who inadvertently performed surgery on his own leg with a machine for grinding tree stumps. As Buerk impresses on us that this is "a pretty powerful piece of equipment", his right hand performs light staccato jabs at it, as if afraid to get too near.

His most expressive gesture accompanies the words, "Make sure you're properly trained." The left hand, palm down, goes up and down in a slow motion, as if administering a reassuring pat on the head to a large dog. Or a seated viewer.

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