TELEVISION / Quest or fool's errand? Arena gets brain fever

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The Independent Culture
YESTERDAY was a double whammy for those given to believing: it was Good Friday, and it was April Fool's Day. Could they be in some way related? For viewers attuned to the possibility of being taken in on this particular date in the calendar, the coincidence of a lot of religious programming gave the proceedings an interesting extra spin. God, after all, invites you to make a leap of faith, and so do the pranksters who tell of spaghetti growing on Italian trees or of sightings of the Loch Ness Monster.

If last night's Arena Relics (BBC 2), which portrayed a bizarre secular pilgrimage, was a prank, then all this columnist can say is no wonder the BBC has an overdraft the size of Chad's. If you splash out this much on a practical joke, it doesn't leave much for the rest of the year. Thinking about it, though, it could easily have been a double bluff from those clever clogs at Arena - something that looked like an April Fool but actually wasn't.

Anyway, a Japanese professor with an unruly perm was on the trail of Einstein's brain. The organ which sired the atom bomb hadn't been heard of for a while. The prof's name was Sugimoto, which for all anyone knows could be the Japanese for 'Sucker', 'There's Egg on Your Face' or 'You've Been Framed'. But then it could be the Japanese for Sugimoto. You had to decide for yourself.

There were key clues to consider. Although there are mathematicians who could blow up the planet with a dash of algebra but couldn't fix themselves a pastrami on rye to save their lives, surely any professor worth their chair would be able to fix an itinerary by fax?

Professor Sugimoto flew randomly back and forth across the United States, knocking on the doors of various medical institutions, and at each stop he would promptly tell them that he wanted 'Einstein brains'. Don't we all, prof. If you had one IQ point for every time the said organ and its dead owner were mentioned, you'd have been president of Mensa by the end of the film.

At first you laughed at the professor's naivety, then cringed at his doggedness, and finally yawned at his persistence. 'If you're so clever,' you wanted to ask him, 'how come you keep asking the same dumb question?'

Among the characters he interviewed was a woman who concluded, after looking at Einstein's brain tissue, that he was a genius, which is a bit like concluding from an inspection of Pele's toenails that he was a footballer. She was an out-to-lunch Californian who described the examination as 'a total body experience'. What with the professor ending every sentence with an 'Ah, so,' one of the indications of a hoax was that the stereotypes were just too good to be true.

By the time the professor had hunted down his quarry to the kitchen of the doctor who performed the autopsy on Einstein in 1955, there was an overpowering whiff of rat. Dr Thomas Harvey had been described earlier on by an ex-colleague as deceased. Sugimoto had carried on looking for him anyway.

One of the people who directed him was a campus commissionaire who looked uncannily like William Burroughs and whose name duly appeared in the credits. And, just to add a little colour to the scene, his directions sent the professor through a street parade of classic cars.

Then there was the brain itself. Or was there? Sugimoto worshipped dumbfounded at the shrine, then requested a slice. No problem: Dr Harvey seized a breadboard and a carving knife from his kitchen sink and proceeded to chop off a nugget the size of the fly crawling across the board. The professor repaired to the local karaoke joint, where he celebrated by singing to inebriated Americans with the bottled tissue in his fist.

In the end, it didn't really matter whether the story was a con-trick or not: the quest rather than the grail is what made this picaresque narrative at once so entertaining and so boring. In the end, the truth is relative.