Television Review

ON A BEACH, somewhere in England, sits a bright yellow Fiat Cinquecento. Peering over its chugging engine is a man with a bushy moustache. He is Robert Winston and the car is an aid to understanding. It represents the capacity of the ancient human brain - a mere half litre. Winston then slams the boot shut to reveal a bright red sports car behind him, a flattering representative for the modern human brain, which is three times larger. As a visual shorthand for cognitive ascent, this was pretty good - a strong graphic representation of an increase in power and speed. Unfortunately, I missed the next two crucial sentences in the commentary because at least half a litre of my wife's brain was noisily preoccupied in establishing precisely what marque of sports car it was.

This is always the hazard of metaphor on television - it's all too easy to be distracted by the fact that the comparative element is there on screen, seductive in its concrete presence. But, since its frankly alarming opening episode - which suggested that the BBC had capitulated to the Amazing Facts school of documentary - The Human Body (BBC1) has been fairly sensible about the way it employs such devices. Later in last night's programme, which concentrated on "the most complicated object in the known universe", Winston offered another image to help viewers grasp the slippery conceptual surface of his topic. He asked you to imagine a city the size of New York in which every inhabitant had 10,000 pieces of string, each of which was tied to another person. Now increase the size of the city by a factor of 10 and - provided you hadn't got bogged down in nit-picking about breaking strain and knot protocol - you would have a rough model for the neuronal networks in the human skull. Tempting as it must have been to cats-cradle a Manhattan skyscraper, the producers (or the accountants) had declined to film this image. When Winston used a termite mound as a model for the nature of the human mind, on the other hand, the muddy teaching aid was included - an effective Dorling Kindersley illustration of the way in which simple units can construct complicated objects.

What you won't hear in this programme is a phrase like "emergent complexity" (which is what Winston was talking about) or, more importantly, an acknowledgement that there are quite a few scientists who would hotly dispute that the mind is anything like a termite mound at all. This is because this is a series which combines very large ambitions with very small ones. The large ambitions concern its visual appeal - a constant search for stimulating or novel or revealing material. All three were combined last week in what was presumably the first moving film of a male erection to be shown on British TV (tastefully silhouetted in the garish colours of a heat-detecting camera), while this week showed the less unprecedented sight of a presenter drunk on screen. In previous cases, the drunks have usually been trying to conceal the fact - here Winston, a bottle-and-a-half into a demonstration of the brain-altering properties of Cabernet Sauvignon, was happy to let his slips show. "Some people just get blurrigerent, belligerent," he slurred, in a montage of increasingly hopeless attempts to film a link. The sequence was enjoyable, but what it told you, at some length, was that people get drunk when they absorb alcohol.

This is where we get to the small ambitions, which is the only way to describe the primer level of much of the information conveyed. If The Human Body really is for adults, then our education system is in a slightly more parlous state than anybody has so far admitted. A more charitable way to think of it would be as the finest children's programme the BBC has made for many years.

It was reported yesterday that The Jerry Springer Show had been censured by a broadcasting watchdog for inviting viewers to laugh at an obese man's appearance. This is ominous news for Fantasy World Cup Live (ITV), which would be about four minutes long if the element of physical mockery and personal abuse was removed. It is, of course, thoroughly reprehensible and childish. Unfortunately, it is often far too funny to switch off. And when the abuse is aimed at David Mellor, one of the more pompous beneficiaries of the World-Cup pundit gravy-train, all moral qualms take an early bath.

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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