Television : How Chris pulled 1.7m birds

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The Independent Culture
WITH 1.7 million chorus girls dressed by Cecil Beaton and three gauche commentators dressed by Army surplus, Flamingowatch (BBC2) was compulsive stuff. A battalion of technicians pitched camp along a string of Kenyan lakes and broadcast live three times a day from "the greatest ornithological spectacle in the world". Up close, the birds didn't look much. Grubby and unevenly streaked with colour, they were more like swans that had survived the hot cycle in the wash with an Arsenal strip. "Vewy pwetty," said Chris, our chap on the shore. A recent graduate of the David Bellamy School of Gwooming and Pwonunciation, Chris knew everything there was to know about fwamingoes. "And yet, there is this awful mystwy suwwounding them."

One mystery is why the daft birds paddle up to their knees in a lake of boiling soda that kept shooting champagne spume up behind Chris's head. "Chris, I really feel for you, mate," chimed in Simon from the next lake. "It's 40 degrees here and it feels hot enough." Chris could handle it: "You'll notice, Simon, that an element of sensibility has cwept into our behaviour." He had moved into the shade. Inland, Jonathan was bringing us up to date on the beasts. Darkness fell: on came the infra-red cameras and a leopard's eyes turned into headlights. The African night cheeped like a rusty PE whistle. Just for a moment you wanted to be there.

Back at the water, Simon was having a few probs pulling the birds. "You've got the lion's share with you, Chris." Given we had just seen a bored king of the jungle ripping out a warthog's throat, this was not the wisest choice of words. Happily, the pleasures of Flamingowatch were beyond words. Looking at the birds hour after hour induced a candy-coloured hypnosis: as a million moved across the lake for their bath, orderly and serene as couples at a Moonie wedding, they became a shifting continent of cherry blossom. It must have cost a fortune; but what a pretty penny.

Beautiful birds with vivid plumage and puffed up breasts constantly getting into hot water, their every action monitored by a predator's eye? Yes, The Buccaneers (BBC1) have landed. Adapted by Maggie Wadey from the novel by Edith Wharton, this lavish five-parter tells the story of the St George sisters, Nan and Virginia, their friend Lizzie and the smouldering (ie cigar-smoking) Brazilian siren Conchita. They are rich, they wear frocks that make the Greater flamingo look like a lesser Carmelite, and they still don't get invited to the best parties. The New World of the 1870s already had some vicious distinctions in place: new new and old new. Conchita must be engaged to Lord Richard (Dick to his friends for short and to everyone else for obvious reasons) before the girls can attend Mrs Parmore's ball. East Coast Eliza Doolittles, they must learn to open their vowels and shut down their spirits. The tables are turned when Miss Testvalley, the English governess, takes her charges to London, where the old guard is duly disarmed by the combined firepower of dollars and decolletage: the facial hair of Dinsdale Landen's Lord Brightlingsea writhes and bristles like a courting stoat. I'm not sure what you call the style of dress in which milky orbs are bustin' out all over a titanium corset, but it's clearly a recipe for disaster: oeufs en coquette, in fact.

Early last year, I heard that The Buccaneers was coming to TV, and I've been looking forward to it ever since. The novel is not Wharton's best although, written at the end of her life in the 1930s, it is a winning blend of 20th-century sense and 19th-century sensibility. The in-house anthropologist of a tribe whose prime commodity remained the bartered bride, Wharton understood that though it was the fathers who imposed the life sentences, the mothers made all too eager jailers. After a grim marriage of her own to a chump who said approvingly of Edith that to look at her waist you would never have thought she'd written a book, Wharton spent her artistic life trying to unpick the lock. In Age of Innocence, House of Mirth and Ethan Frome, the impulse to break out and live in truth was crushed by duty, death and horrible disfigurement respectively. Her last book would be the first to release its heroine into happiness. TV should have lapped it up - this light comedy about a dark struggle. Watching the first episode, I wasn't sure Wadey and I had read the same book.

The loss of Wharton's killer brackets - "Miss Testvalley had finished Miss Parmore (a young woman whom Nature seemed scarcely to have begun)" - was inevitable. But why scrap the monologue in which Mrs St George precisely calibrates each of the girls' attractions as if they were bloodstock? A voiceover would have done the trick. Instead we got dialogue that softened cold calculation into embarrassing maternal pride. There has already been a hoo-ha about Wadey adding sex to the plot, but who gives a fig leaf about people taking their clothes off when the buttoned-up code that held an era in check is rent apart for contemporary effect? In the book, when dastardly Dick stalks past the bedroom of his former conquest, Miss Testvalley, she wills him to come in, but he does not. On screen, Cherie Lunghi admits him with a sphinx smile, then slings him out after delivering a homily about self-esteem that owes more to Gloria Steinem than Edith Wharton. The same coarsening is seen in the buccaneers who carry on cavorting as if in a Ken Russell adaptation of Ring a Ring o' Roses. Lunghi is badly miscast, as is Jenny Agutter, whose breathy loveliness doesn't make her an obvious choice for a hard-boiled mistress on the skids. Depressing that even in a series presided over by women, female characters are not allowed to look their age.

Wadey said that she had been inspired by the paintings of Tissot. Director Philip Saville seems to have been dreaming of other, cooler artists. Many of the pleasures here come from his sure, delicate touch. The clapboard house set against the fierce blue sky beneath which the girls in petticoats wheel and dip like gulls, could be one of Hopper's dazzling shorescapes. And there is a wonderful moment when Nan (Carla Gugino) stares up at a hunting tapestry and we are assailed by the sound of a shower of arrows, a shivery apprehension of the chase to come. I'm hoping things will look up tonight when Nan, the moral heart of the story, takes centre- stage, and - as Chris would say - an element of sensibility has cwept into their behaviour.

Out of Order (C4) is one of those current affairs formats designed to reassure viewers that they will not have to listen to two sides banging on about the same old entrenched ideas. In a bold conceptual breakthrough, two opponents are stuck in a lift to bang on about the same old entrenched ideas. The confined space and precarious circumstances are meant to add focus, a whiff of danger even, but it would require great performers for it to take off. As soon as it became clear during Wednesday's confrontation on homosexuality that the rules did not permit Matthew Parris to throttle Peter Tatchell with his "I Can See Queerly" T-shirt, you rather lost interest. Parris insisted you shouldn't ram your sexuality down people's throats, particularly when they find it hard to swallow. Tatchell was unrepentant: if all men were gay, he insisted, there would be no yobs. Over on Sportsnight (BBC1), Chelsea fans who had been following Tatchell's logic on portable tellies with growing bewilderment invaded the pitch in protest. Ah, if only they'd all been at home watching Judy Garland videos!

Under its new editor, Panorama (BBC1) will clearly sink to a few lift shafts if that's what it takes to get the "must watch" factor. Steve Hewlett claims "the tabloids are showing us an agenda which is what people are really interested in". With the mock Trial of Private Clegg, he succeeded brilliantly in apeing his preferred newspapers, further simplifying a case already reduced to shrill certainties.

Never mind; there was always For Richer, For Poorer (C4, Cutting Edge), Lucy Sandys-Winsch's infinitely suggestive piece about weddings across the social scale, and The Last Englishman (BBC1, Heroes and Villains), a richly comic and moving film about Colonel A D Wintle starring Jim Broadbent. He put on a character several sizes larger than life and swelled to fit it perfectly. After watching Jennifer Saunders and Rowan Atkinson in previous episodes, Broadbent proved that whatever alternative comedians offer an alternative to, it isn't actors.