Television review

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The Independent Culture
Since the BBC discovered the prodigious ability of sick animals to breed high ratings, it seems as if no ailing animal in the land is safe from the camera. Bringing you up to date with the story so far in Back to the Wild (BBC1), the presenter, Patrick Robinson, offered a furry kind of soap synopsis: "Peter, the vet, took the pin out of Ollie the barn owl's broken wing. Colin took delivery of the orphan badger cubs, Puppy and Barley. And the tiny baby fox? She was recovering from the operation to remove a rubber teat from her tummy."

Not everything is going well - Ollie has not recovered all of the movement in his damaged wing, which means his flight pattern is that of a feath- ered boomerang. Some physiotherapy seems in order and, if that doesn't work, perhaps a trip to the spa at Baden-Baden. But, you'll be glad to know that the badgers have been transferred to a secluded country villa in the hospital grounds, and the fox is up and about with his brothers.

One hopes that when they eventually come to release them into the wild (a strict principle at this RSPCA hospital), it will be a good distance away from the very appetising baby rabbits which the hospital has solicitously nursed up to single-portion size. One understands, naturally, that one patient may end up eating the other, but it would be very embarrassing if it happened in front of the camera.

Several such paradoxes arise in a programme like this - watching a women using tweezers to feed worms into a tiny fledgeling's beak, you do wonder whether this is the best way for all that compassion to be channelled. And what happens if a worm gets injured? Not much, I imagine, given that the hospital seems to show a decided prejudice in favour of anything possessing vertebrae. What's more, the sentiments aroused by such programmes might even be inimical to the animals' interests - the hospital has more tawny owl chicks than it knows what to do with because well-meaning members of the public assume that these large balls of tumble-dryer lint are helpless. In many cases, in fact, they would be perfectly capable of climbing back up to the nest from which they've fallen, if not abducted into charity by their rescuers.

The presence of Robinson, who plays Ash in the biped hospital watch Casualty, seemed particularly appropriate last night, when West Hatch Wildlife Hospital was plunged into one of those major disasters so frequent at Holby General - in this case, the Sea Empress oil spill, which results in a dash for the centre's awesome reserves of Fairy Liquid (a free plug which almost matched in generosity the production designer's subliminal puff for a well-known mobile phone company).

"Back at our centre it's a bit like being in the trenches," said one volunteer, as they waited for the whistle to go. His metaphor prompted you to ask again whether they might all be going over the top, whether there might be a gap between the unstoppable gush of assistance and the final results - nobody knows how long birds survive after their brisk shampooing, nor what being helped does to them. But it's a lot better than cruelty, I agree.

It being the holiday season, One Foot in the Past departed for Italy, becoming One Foot on the Continent (BBC2). It offered the peculiarly English sight of people going down with the aesthetic heat-stroke that country traditionally inspires. Andrew Graham-Dixon buzzed around Southern Tuscany to explore the papal toy- town of Pienza, Dan Cruickshank annoyed caretakers in Palermo by nagging them until they let him into their mouldering buildings, and Kirsty Wark got mildly philosophical about Venzone, a town levelled by an earthquake 20 years ago and now entirely rebuilt. It may just be me being curmudgeonly about these cushy assignments, but the scripts had a slight post-prandial torpor to them, from Graham-Dixon's description of Pienza as "locked in time" to Wark's over-reliance on the "beautiful and unspoilt" cliches. The views were smashing, though. Wish I was there.

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