Television Review

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The Independent Culture
The credits for Savage Skies (ITV) include a "colourist", not a conventional duty on a documentary series. One can only guess that the man in question was employed to put the purple into the prose, and he had done his job well. Ian Holm's voice-over was positively aubergine in its gloss and density. Storms were "spawned" from a mother cell and then went "prowling" for prey; lives were to be "changed forever", the "nightmare" approached inexorably. Beneath this verbal excess, the programme itself turned out to be something considerably simpler: a good excuse for showing home videos of really bad weather.

Granted, these were watchable enough - though the usual defects of amateur video are not diminished by the fact that the cameraman is shaking in his boots. But even through the fuzz of automatic focus and frenzied zooming, it was possible to grasp the scale of the storms - their unique combination of focus and power. This is perhaps what makes a tornado so special: if you're outside it, you can see it in its entirety and even, to a certain extent, guess which way it's heading; if you're inside it, you're chopped beef.

The best footage in Savage Skies appeared to show a tornado passing directly overhead (the cameraman was wedged tightly into the cleft between a motorway bridge and the embankment); it looked for a moment as if the slab of freeway might lift away as the grass bent flat beneath 200mph winds. The best story was that of a survivor whose car had been overturned by a tornado - when he came round he discovered that his companion had been sucked from his seatbelt (the car looked like a crumpled sweet-wrapper). In a bathetic touch, his final words had been "Here we go" - as though he was embarking on some terminal fun ride.

Which is how tornadoes are undoubtedly perceived by storm-chasers - meteorological ghouls who gather in Kansas and Oklahoma in the desperate hope that a twister will form before their eyes. Regular viewers will have met this unsettling bunch before (in an Encounters film broadcast a few years ago), but they were still intriguing to watch, staring at the darkening skies and willing disaster to descend on some distant homestead. Antonio, a Brazilian businessman, had spent a fortune on tornado holidays without ever seeing one, and Savage Skies concluded with his eventual triumph - dancing with glee in front of a funnel of black cloud, as hailstones the size of golf balls bounced off his bald head. Myself, I think this sort of thing is better in the comfort of my own home.

There were several meteorological interludes in Straight from the Heart (BBC2) as well - proving that when it comes to the pathetic fallacy, nothing is as effective as weeping skies and optimistic sunrises. Throughout Pamela Smith's film about people who'd had guilty secrets, you kept cutting away from the cathode-ray confessional for brief visual refreshments (the talking heads are just that, without even an interrogating voice to mediate the solipsism). Some of these appeared to have been inspired by a dentist's waiting-room walls - clouds with silver linings, giant rufous suns and an unfurling butterfly, used to illustrate the story of a transsexual who had finally come out. Others were more oblique and more effective - like the flow of underwater lava, extruding with a submarine hiss of steam, which interrupted the confession of the woman who had a secret affair with a sixth-former on the eve of her marriage - a man to whom she returned 18 years later.

Given that the transsexual read out a poem of bracing awfulness ("Years ago I was born, a brother to two girls/ I never had the privilege of growing up in frills"), he may have chosen this thin symbol of his emergent glamour, but it still diminished his plight into a cliche. The lava, however, and the fan of peacock feathers which accompanied the account of a shopaholic, offered something less banal for your mind to work on - the image as commentary rather than trite summary.

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