Television Reviews

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The Independent Culture
"Rats," said David Attenborough, looking rather like Stan Laurel in a hard hat, and peering queasily through a sewer entrance in Wildlife on One - The Rat Race (BBC1), "inspire fear in even the most rational of us, including, I have to say, me". One wondered, briefly, if last night's film might concern the hubris of the Attenborough rather than the habits of our underground neighbours, but things soon settled down.

Well, not quite. Attenborough waxed lyrical about "the battle between them and us", before launching into the more comfortable territory of nature programming: talk of "one of the most successful creatures on earth", the juxtaposition of sleeping children with ravenous scavengers and camera shots in unlikely places.

Rats, apparently, can enter houses through the u-bend of a lavatory. We were shown a skilled sequence of "our" rat (the human tendency to anthropomorphise requires that nature programmes present a personality with whom the viewer can identify) jumping culverts, scuttling up ever-narrowing pipes, and eventually popping out from under a loo seat. After a nice dinner of left- over risotto, it exited from the house via the cat-flap, an action which left one wondering why, if rats are so clever, she didn't enter the same way.

Increasingly, the facts in nature programming seem to be hooks for flashy lenswork. There were a number of sequences in Wildlife on One which left you less interested in the rat than in how they got the camera up a tube, along a washing line and into a mousetrap in the first place.

Sure, it's comforting to know that the rat can jump 6ft, float for 72 hours, bear up to 1,000 offspring in a year and grow to the length of a man's forearm. But it would be far more comforting to find out how one can get away with filming the bald-tailed beasties chomping power cables, being chomped by smug-looking foxes, and escaping certain death in a flash flood - all of which must, presumably, have been set up in some way - without incurring the wrath of the Animal Liberation Front. They'd never have got away with it if it had been cute little squirrels.

In one of those stellar programming coincidences, The Human Jungle (C4) was concurrently rattling off phrases like "rat run" and "rat race". The subject of this new six-part series from the makers of Baby It's You is that other urban dweller, the human being. By the end of the century more than half the world's population will live in cities, and we have adapted spectacularly to handle the stress of urban life.

So far has this adaptation gone, the soothing Scottish tones of Dennis Lawson informed us, that "the inhabitants of London or Los Angeles have more in common with each other than their neighbours in the surrounding countryside". While this may be a bit of an exaggeration - one can't imagine Londoners adopting the in-car jacuzzi as a style statement - the guy has a point. You only have to try getting into Sloane Square tube station during the Chelsea Flower Show to see that. City dwellers, it seems, not only walk at twice the pace of their rural counterparts, but actually think faster. The sensory overload of crowded places has resulted in a level of parallel processing that would crash most computers. We travel three times as far as in the 1950s, and sleep half an hour less than 20 years ago.

The underlying premise of all this seems to be that we are evolving into two separate species, an idea that's been around since HG Wells. The programme was interspersed with When Harry Met Sally-style talking-head sequences. While the majority seemed touchingly enthusiastic about their lead-rich environment, a note of ghastliness crept in with a pretty American brunette. "I take my multi-vitamins," she said, "and I take Seldane for allergies: everyone in the city seems to be on that. And I take my anti-depressant, which I love very much. I would be mad if anyone tried taking that away from me." Which of the new races will retain the title of Sapiens remains to be seen.