Television Review

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the nice things about practical cycling gear - calf-clinging leggings, rumpled Day-Glo cagoules, helmets like polystyrene toadstools - is that as long as you are wearing it, nobody will ever accuse you of presenting a sexual threat. On the down side, there is always the risk that you will be picked up by the BBC and paraded as an eccentric boffin for the amusement of the viewing public, which is what has happened to Adam Hart-Davis on Local Heroes (BBC2).

Clearly, the BBC wants Hart-Davis to be a flamboyant egghead in the pattern of Magnus Pyke or Heinz Wolff. Equally clearly, he's too sensible and modest to fit that mould; but he does seem dispiritingly eager to try. Perhaps one day, television presenters will no longer be compelled to demean themselves in the name of catching the viewers' attention. They will stand still in front of a single, unmoving camera and talk like ordinary people, without the shoddy puns and the inappropriately youthful language (there was a middle-aged woman on The Travel Show talking about "chilling out" a couple of weeks ago, and it fell on my ears like raw onion on an open wound).

But until the revolution comes, we have to put up with a programme that has Hart-Davis whizzing from the New Forest to Bath to Sidmouth to the Dorset coast to the New Forest again and Stroud (plot it on a map and see what sense it makes); that jumps from an experiment in concrete to the measurement of the velocity of bullets to spectrum analysis to rock formation to thunderstorm prediction; that has its presenter in full cycling fig, helmet included, even when he's seated indoors.

In fact, Hart-Davis has enough natural charm and enthusiasm to penetrate even the oddities of BBC feature-making. Last night's edition was full of useful information, with many demonstrations of scientific principles using buckets and ladders. These included an illustration of the principles behind concrete that employed a flowerpot filled with jelly and pasta shapes, how to build your own machine for predicting thunderstorms, after the example of Stroud's own John Canton (1718-1772) and a useful discussion of how the geologist Charles Lyell transformed our view of history, by showing it had been going on for an awfully long time.

What's really unfortunate is the way everything is rushed through, with no context, no continuity from one time to the next, and lots of loose ends. We were told that Canton, as a boy, carved a sundial that showed where the sun was in the ecliptic; I'm sure I would be astonished if I had some idea what the ecliptic is, and how difficult it is to show it in a sundial. But ho-hum: Hart-Davis fulfils his mission, which is to celebrate Britain's contribution to knowledge and the good of humanity, and to show how creativity sprouts in the most unregarded spots.

Meanwhile, The Real Prince Philip (C4) completed its survey of a man who has achieved things the hard way, through birth and marriage. He has been, it seems, the victim of a hostile palace establishment and a sniping press. I tried to think of him as another Diana, but the pictures just wouldn't come.

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