Television Review

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The Independent Culture
THEME NIGHTS conventionally offer a frivolous expedition into some colourful cranny of popular culture. Like the rest of us, they tend to go out on Saturday evenings. So it took me a while to work out that a Tuesday-night pile-up of programmes about El Nino was not, in fact, an accident but an attempt to cover the weather system from enough different angles to suit all tastes.

For adherents of soupy nature programmes, there was Michaela Strachan in Indonesia coming to The Orang-utan Rescue (BBC1). For the news junkies, there was the reporter Matt Frei on the forest fires of Borneo in Kings of the Jungle (BBC1). There was even a report on El Nino on Newsround (BBC1). It was this - as well as the fact that Nature Special: Living With El Nino (BBC2) also covered the Borneo fires currently affecting the orang-utan population - that made the design of the evening look rickety. I suspect that the BBC happened to discover during a planning meeting that it had commissioned a pair of documentaries in the same thematic neighbourhood, and consequently decided to parley them up under the title "Burning East". All we needed was a film about how the homes of film stars are toppling into the sea in California and all bases would have been covered.

If they'd organised it properly from the start, the programmes would all have gone out on one channel. In fact, Julian Pettifer's Nature Special, partitioned from the others, was the one which looked far beyond Indonesia in search of really dire warnings of long-term natural disaster on four continents. A cornerstone of Pettifer's investigation was on a British high street, where he asked passers-by if they'd heard of El Nino. The ignorance betrayed by the answers - "earthquake in Mexico?", "something about babies?" - was probably selective. And yet it may actually have been underlined by the programmes about stricken apes and forest fires, which were very telegenic, but hardly the full story. For the bigger picture, you had to watch Nature Special.

Pettifer bracketed his global report with examples of El Nino's benign side: a field of flowers in the Peruvian desert at the start, and, at the close, a successful wildlife management scheme in Zimbabwe which looked like the pastoral denouement of The Lion King made flesh. But his main message rang with Old Testament pessimism, foretelling draught, flooding and famine that could conceivably be avoided with greater human vigilance. The sermon was punched home with stark illustrations. Pettifer visited a deserted sea-bird colony off the coast of Peru which, 12 months earlier, had been teeming with life. The warming of the Pacific caused by El Nino had driven the fish they feed on elsewhere, and, in competition with a local fishmeal plant, the sea- birds had disastrously lost out.

But when he came to consider the effect of El Nino on the rain forests of Borneo, Pettifer seemed somehow gagged by the presence of the two other BBC documentaries. His explanation that human activity leaves flammable debris on the forest floor seemed sketchy. You wanted to know more - what debris? - but didn't want to have to watch another programme aimed at the Pet Rescue/ Animal Hospital brigade to find out.