Television: Apocalypse now? Not a chance

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The Independent Culture
According to Nostradamus, the Eileen Drewery of the 16th century, the world is due to end today - the fourth day of the seventh month of 1999. He didn't give a time, so you should be able to read the rest of this column, although I'll understand if you would rather tidy up the breakfast things, then sit quietly in the lotus position waiting for the Apocalypse. I scoff in the safe knowledge that if I'm wrong, there won't even be time for me to laugh on the other side of my face. Channel 4, however, preferred to take no chances, running its Nostradamus fest last night.

Three Minutes To Impact showed that the end of the world might indeed be nigh, not as an Act of God but the result of a wayward comet hitting Earth at 60,000mph, a kind of cosmic Mark Philippoussis serve. "Those of us who survive the impact expire in the cold and famine that follow," said the narrator, dispensing even with the comfort of the future conditional tense.

At first Three Minutes To Impact seemed reassuringly dependent on cranks. A man billed as a Doomsday astronomer looked down on Manhattan from a helicopter, and explained how the shock waves generated by a smallish comet hitting New York would engulf Chicago within two minutes. This scenario would have alarmed me more if the Doomsday astronomer had not had a Devon accent. It seemed all wrong, like being told by a New Yorker how best to get to Budleigh Salterton. Perhaps influenced by the movies, I like to think of apocalypses as very much an American thing.

Gradually, though, the programme acquired a rather alarming credibility. The dinosaurs are thought to have been wiped out by a meteor 60 million years ago, and there is evidently no reason to believe that the same won't happen again, although, pace Nostradamus, probably not today. For scientists now believe that evolution is characterised by long periods of placid growth punctuated by sudden, horribly violent disruptions. As the father of a four-year-old boy, I understand the principle entirely.

The script was forgivably laden with worldly metaphors and analogies. The projectile that destroyed the dinosaurs hit Earth with the equivalent force of 75 million megatons of TNT, which is anorak for a hell of a thump. To illustrate this, several model brontosauruses were seen slowly keeling over. We were also assured that the Earth "is pocked with celestial buckshot" and there followed an interview with an American couple called Shoemaker, firm believers that another Big One is inevitable, probably sooner rather than later.

At the end, a paragraph informed us that, shortly after filming was completed, Mr Shoemaker was killed in a car crash - an hour of scientific argument challenged by a single footnote. For contrary to all the evidence presented in the film, this strongly suggests that the cosmos is controlled by a Supreme Being with a malicious sense of humour. It was grotesquely ironic for Mr Shoemaker to die in so banal, so terrestrial an impact. Still, he leaves a legacy of important research. I'd like to say that the Shoemakers were talking cobblers, if only because it's an irresistible pun. In fact, their work is greatly respected by astronomers, who have more or less accepted their theory that the craters on the moon were caused by meteorites.

All of which left the weather conditions in The Eye of the Storm (ITV) looking rather trifling, for what's a forest fire alongside Armageddon? Worth worrying about if you're in the middle of it, is the answer. Yet the programme found a New Zealander who enjoys being in the middle of natural disasters. "Nothing can compare with being on the idge of an erupting volcano," he said, adding, with a splendid sense of priority, that one should not go so close "that you damage your camera or get killed".

Series such as The Eye of the Storm - of which there are far, far too many, but that's another column - remind us that in Britain we have no weather to speak of, making it all the more odd that we never stop talking about it. Of course, for two weeks of the year our weather is the legitimate preoccupation of the sporting world, as the covers go on and off at Wimbledon. But the rain-induced replays at least enable the BBC to resurrect the late, great Dan Maskell and, regardless of the weather, summer suddenly tastes of strawberries again.

"Ebsolutely fentestic metch" enthused Maskell, of the record-breaking 1969 ding-dong between Pasarell and Gonzalez. We will never hear his like again, except during rain intervals. Meanwhile, Bill Threlfall has done his best to become equally unmissable. "She's as smooth as a cucumber with a lovely smooth service action," he said, and if you've ever watched a cucumber playing tennis - doubtless against a swede with a ferocious backhand - you'll know what he was getting at.

Like a superannuated ballgirl, the Queen wore the Wimbledon colours of purple and green during the State Opening of the Scottish Parliament (BBC1), although disappointingly it was said that she was showing solidarity with the thistle rather than with Tim Henman.

To the BBC's credit, Thursday morning's coverage was anchored by Kirsty Wark with help from Sally Magnusson and not a Dimbleby for miles. "The Queen is here today to open formally the new Scottish Parliament," said Wark. It was no time to split an infinitive. In fact Wark slipped up only once. "What sort of day will this be for Her Majesty?" she wondered, and made the mistake of asking the poet Liz Lochhead, who is not Her Majesty's number one fan. "It's strange that there has to be a Queen doing all this at the end of this century," mused Lochhead, and there was a brief, uncomfortable silence while the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh sped up the Royal Mile, and Richard Dimbleby turned in his grave.

The Duke of Edinburgh loomed large last week. The first part of The Real Prince Philip (C4) was not much more than stolidly informative, but offered some insight into Philip's reported remoteness as a father, for he comes from a spectacularly dysfunctional family himself. The documentary was at its best reinforcing what we already know well: for example, that the media tugged their forelocks as respectfully as anyone 50 years ago; even conspiring to ensure that Philip came across as a Thoroughly Good Egg - "very fond of a game of skittles," reported a yokel - to divert the public's attention from his German lineage.

Coincidentally, or perhaps mischievously, the programme was followed by The Madness of King George, a kind of sequel to Aristocrats (BBC1), in which tonight we encounter the young George III. Aristocrats is a curious costume drama, being rich in costume but almost entirely lacking in drama. It follows the fortunes of the Lennox sisters, daughters of the Duke of Richmond, and is rather like a soap opera, growing in length but somehow not in breadth. That said, it is well-acted and gorgeously photographed, and does offer a history lesson of sorts. Apparently the Anglo-Irish aristocracy of the 18th century felt that England was bleeding Ireland dry, the sad legacy of which was explored by Jeremy Paxman on Wednesday's Newsnight (BBC2).

Paxman, fresh from baiting Henry Kissinger on the radio[reviewed below], faced the more delicate task of interviewing Dermot Nesbitt of the Ulster Unionists, together with the Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin. They were like two magnets, forced together yet repulsed by sparks of pure hatred. But then if Nostradamus was right and the world ends later today, none of that will matter any more. Which, to some people, might come as a relief.