TELEVISION / Below the limit: Giles Smith goes slow

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ON BBC 1, 10 people in their early twenties were deep in the countryside, steering karts, buggies and VW Polos round obstacle courses, trying to become Young Driver of the Year. 'I have to tell you,' said Mike Smith, presenting the programme from somewhere inside a large, designer rally jacket, 'motor sport doesn't come any tighter than this.'

But it does come more reckless. Most drivers at this age are like dogs off the leash, busy un-learning the rules instilled at great expense during driving lessons - ditching the standard 10-to-two steering- wheel grip for the altogether more satisfyingly hair-raising 25-past- five, and perfecting stunts not necessarily referred to in the Department of Transport handbook, like the negotiation of roundabouts at 40mph, using the handbrake only. Here, though, everyone was acting responsibly, completing sober tasks at sensible speeds, concentrating on taking their practice to Masters level and beyond. Hell, these people probably even indicate before they pull out.

Still, Smith worked hard to suggest that excitement levels were on overdrive. 'You couldn't wish for better motor sport,' he gasped, not long after the round in which the competitors were asked to steer long, thin carts at milkfloat speed through a muddy clearing. ('It's like riding a motorbike with four wheels,' he had said, helpfully.)

For the viewer, impatience set in. During the buggy-driving section, one's respect for the drivers' cautious and immaculate road-handling was at cross-purposes with one's desire to see them fling the thing into the woods. Wasn't this what we had been promised by the programme's title sequence? The triumphant final image in a montage of quick cuts, set to fast music, showed one of the competitors misjudging their entry into a styrofoam garage and destroying it entirely. As one attempt to complete the buggy section ended calmly in a puddle, even Smith was sounding apologetic. 'This may not look too fast to you on the screen because it's not wildly spectacular, but it's smooth and that's what's important.' We could have used some rough with that smooth.

Over on Channel 4, in Travellers' Tales, the award for Young Camel Driver of the Year went to an unnamed nomad who, troubled by his animal's tendency to go into reverse, pulled it down to its knees with one swift yank of the forearm. This was during a film about the remarkable Wilfred Thesiger, now 83, who, after the Second World War, travelled extensively in the 'Empty Quarter' desert of Southern Arabia, unbothered by its drawbacks - its heat, its dust, the fact that all holiday photographs from there look the same. Thesiger preferred to think of this as 'the challenge of the desert' and referred to 'the beauty of the dunes', 'the companionship of the Arabs'. He was also a big fan of the camel.

'The animal above all animals,' he called it - reliable runner, excellent mileage, fabulous boot space. Indeed, a camel once saved Thesiger's life: stuck without water in the desert, he applied a stick to his camel's throat, forcing it to be sick, and slaked his thirst with the vomit. Try getting that sort of performance out of a VW Polo.

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