TELEVISION / Between the Tides The ravishing documentary that wants to be a ballet.

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The Independent Culture
Between the Tides was a wildlife documentary that yearned to be something else: watery landscape painting, perhaps, or a soaring string quartet, or a fragrant prose poem. Anything, in short, but what the disciples of the genre expect: more Gainsborough than Attenborough.

The subject was Britain's estuaries, though as for which ones, the film kept its cards pretty close to its chest. The adjective "Hebridean" did once migrate loftily across the soundtrack, but more because of its lyrical communion between consonants and vowels than out of any keenness to pin these images to the map. Otherwise, the film took care not to get bogged down in anything so turgid as place names. There was the odd mention of "Africa" or "Greenland" but in this context they sounded as imaginary as Illyria.

Photography this ravishing presents a troublesome dilemma to a wildlife programme maker. To justify their existence, the words that accompany it are obliged to impart the barest minimum of information. But plain facts can look naked, so to pack the same aesthetic punch as the pictures, the captions have to be primped and plumped and read by Tom Conti at his crackliest. A flock of geese are "a conquering army, thousands strong". They "pour in from the sea, spilling the wind to tumble earthwards in a sudden rush of wings". Or maybe it was rushing the wind to pour earthwards in a sudden tumble of wings. Or pouring the earth to spill wingwards in a sudden spill of wind. It actually doesn't matter. The sound the words made was more important.

In such a crowd of metaphors, one or two were bound to get mixed. As the tide went out the creeks were "muddy arteries"; by the time it turned they had grown "fingertips". And the sense of danger the film attempted to create was mere vulgar sensationalism unworthy of its higher artistic purpose. Humans can stroll on these estuaries, we were advised, "but time it wrong or walk too far from firmer land, and you are sure to drown". The Ancient Mariner is alive and well and working out of BBC Bristol.

Ian McCarthy's breathtaking camerawork could have gone the distance without accompaniment. The images he enticed through his lens seemed calculated to deepen the mysteries of nature rather than explain them. There was the usual gobsmacking panoply of sunsets, rainbows and torrential showers that anyone with the right apparatus might capture. But some shots were freshly minted marvels: the geese spattered across the sky like flecks of paint; knots roosting at high tide like clustered refugees; of globulous water creeping in close up over the mud flats. In the finest shot of all the camera held firm as a flock of waders looped and swirled in and out of the frame towards the cloudy horizon. A real performance. Oh, all right, "a languid ballet played out in the deepening light".