TELEVISION / Kanzi the chimp for England?

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THE WEEK began with England's flailing efforts to save the Lord's Test (Cricket, BBC1&2), which, given Australia's patent superiority in almost every department, looked as likely as a Brit lifting the title at Wimbledon (BBC1&2). I say almost every department, because the Australians haven't yet managed to field anyone to rival Ted Dexter for post-match analysis. 'Venus,' he said, 'may be in the wrong juxtaposition with somewhere else.' This was obviously meant to be a joke, but it was just as obviously a red rag to the men in the saloon bar and the press box.

Dexter's galactic ramblings might have found a sympathetic ear among the Mehinacu, an embattled tribe in the heart of the Amazon and subject of Under the Sun: Dreams from the Forest (BBC2). The eclipse of the moon is a big date in the Mehinacu year, and the shamans of the village mark it by gathering round to smoke and consult the spirit world. For them, a lot more than a Test series depends on the ritual; tension mounts as the spirits are invoked for their support, otherwise the moon, as it reddens, may drip menstrual blood and spread disease. A fireside dance step, sexual teasing and a good old belly-laugh act as prophylactic against the lunar leak. It looked like a fun way to cope with PMT.

The film-makers assured us of the great significance of dreams in tribal custom - if you dream you're hit by an arrow, for example, you mustn't go out or a snake might bite you - but, like everybody else's dreamlife, it pointed only to the impossibility of securing verifiable evidence. Far more interesting was the interview with Jaka, the village chief, and his wife, Maintyakalu, discussing a marriage that has survived despite the tribe's laissez-faire attitude to infidelity. Her tolerance was instructive, particularly in the wake of all that hand-wringing in Ray Gosling's Adultery (BBC2). 'I tell him not to have sex with others, but he won't listen.' But when she actually caught hubby playing away with another woman, her response was forthright, and timeless: 'I ran after them with a stick.'

Some of that plain speaking wouldn't have gone amiss in Jean-Luc Godard's Histoires du Cinema (C4), which I turned on in a spirit of duty rather than in any hope of enlightenment. Sure enough, I was boggle-eyed within 10 minutes: here was the piece of Godard that passeth all understanding, a frenetic scattershot collage punctuated by occasional urgent bursts of typewriter clacking. In terms of obfuscation and randomness it passed the Dexter test with flying colours. The director himself was seen puffing distractedly on his cigar and poring over a book, both pastimes that held rather more appeal than sifting through this avant-garbage.

Plenty of head-scratching in this week's Horizon (BBC2) too, but as an essay on the mysteries of human comprehension 'Chimp Talk' was in a different class. Jenny Jones's intriguing - and unsettling - documentary examined research into the cognitive ability of apes, and found that the cherished distance between ourselves and certain animals may be far shorter than we had previously supposed. It was hard to contain astonishment as you saw one of the chimps, Kanzi, recognising spoken words and picking out abstract symbols on a keyboard. After watching an instructional film on TV, he fashioned a knife from stone. He also proved very handy in the kitchen, putting onions in the pan and washing potatoes, not quite cordon bleu stage yet but still impressive.

Kanzi's tutor, Sue Savage- Rumbaugh, reckoned that a chimp could learn to communicate if it were raised like a child. Other chimps in the film were seen not only to understand numerals and fractions, but to show 'human' feelings like grief. (And did I detect a look of remorse in the chimp ticked off for stomping on the family dog?) By the end, when one saw a different set of chimps yammering in cages, astonishment had turned to unease. Your heart went out to sad-eyed Kanzi, a creature who is clearly responsive, agile, resourceful, and, given this unnatural environment, extremely courteous. Dr Savage-Rumbaugh asserted her belief that, were chimps equipped with a vocal tract, Kanzi and his like would talk. It is perhaps just as well that they can't: what they have to say about us from behind their bars might be intolerable.

Still, the research analysts of 'Chimp Talk' were very Dolittles in comparison with the subject of TV Heroes (BBC1). Auden once wrote something about dogs getting on with their 'doggy lives', but he reckoned without Barbara Woodhouse. Sporting the English gentlewoman's armour of tweeds, cardies and sensible shoes, she became the scourge of the canine community when Training Dogs The Woodhouse Way was let off the leash back in 1980. It was a dog's life for the owners, too. She wasn't one to make fine distinctions between master and mastiff. 'Sit. No, that's very weak. Sit. You never put your finger in the dog's pocket, did you? You see? Sit - really hard.' Danny Baker struck the right note between reverence and incredulity as he recounted the great dame's accomplishments (she once taught Michael Foot to quickstep, apparently) and he filled out the 10-minute slot with some wonderful footage: 'Don't let the alsatian tread on the peke]' Woodhouse blared, as if part of her job was being rudely usurped. It was enough to send you whimpering to your kennel.

The six-part social history The Long Summer (C4) drew to a close, and despite some heavy weather in the middle, proved engrossing. Jamie Muir's account of Britain between the wars deployed its archive material inventively, pinpointing the shifts in manners and mores with exemplary patience. A certain academic doggedness crept in now and then - there was little of the wit of the Beeb's recent oral histories - but Alan Bennett's narration brought the era to life in all its melancholic uncertainty.

Allison Pearson writes this week in the Sunday Review, page 20.

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