Television Review

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The Independent Culture
WHEN WINSTON SMITH was sent to confront "the worst thing in the world" in Room 101, it turned out to be rats. The real horror of this in Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, is that it was supposed to demonstrate the omniscience of the Thought Police - that they were acquainted with even his inmost terrors. But really, it showed nothing of the sort. It was simply elementary psychology: everybody detests rats.

Mark Lewis's film Rat (C4) was a remarkable testimony to the fear and loathing rats inspire. The citizens of New York queued up to tell their rat stories: to describe the horror of finding a rat staring at your children from the sofa; and of feeling one land on your stomach while you lay in bed. The rhetoric here was of street warfare - of rats facing down humans, of invasion and conquest. Exterminators spoke of their jobs with an air of no- bullshit machismo learned from Bruce Willis in Die Hard.

The hatred on display here seemed out of all proportion to the menace rats pose. Lewis gently nudged at the question of why this was. Early on, an intriguing pair of statistics was posted on screen: the number of New Yorkers bitten by rats in one year was 184; the number bitten by fellow New Yorkers in the same year was 1,102. So why is it that rats get all the bad publicity? Partly because they are so like us - one man spoke of seeing the souls of rats in their eyes, and again and again it was their intelligence, their purposeful malevolence which impressed the interviewees.

The film was shot with panache: hammed-up, intense interviews were intercut with carefree footage of rats sauntering down the city streets or bouncing up the steps of an apartment block. To this, Lewis added a sharp ear for the odd phrase - subway rats were described as enjoying "a day in the sun, in a subterranean sense". At times, Rat was practically poetry, even if the poem was only "The Pied Piper of Hamelin".

For many here, the solution to the rat problem was cats. But this would just be swapping one pest for another. Monday night's Wild Tales (C4) was a contribution to the recent sub-genre of wildlife films based on the premise that household pets are killers and their owners are lucky to get out of the relationship without having their lungs ripped out. The film surveyed the carnage executed by domestic cats, and ended with an announcement that, while you had been watching, 25,000 small animals and birds had been dispatched by cats in the UK alone. This nightly hecatomb is not simply tough on carpets; it threatens the existence of small mammal species and the predators, such as barn owls, who depend on them.

Meanwhile, feral cats in Australia have all but wiped out marsupials such as bandicoots, and, in the US, huge colonies of abandoned cats massacre flocks of migrating birds incautious enough to roost in their neighbourhood. Cat saliva, we learned, is practically toxic to most other animals, it's so packed with pernicious bacteria. All in all, the only real advantage cats have over rats as pets is that cats have better control over their bowels and bladders. Then again, rats are cheap to feed, don't take up much space or make much noise. Frankly, it's a bit of toss up.