TELEVISION / The Desmond does his thing, again: Surely there is a vast difference between an ape's grimace and signals used by a football coach?

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The Independent Culture
THIS WEEK, we are going to observe one of the strangest of all our indigenous creatures. The Desmond is not an easy animal to get to know, or indeed to like. He has the ability to disappear from view for years at a time, giving rise to the rumour - even the hope - that the species has become extinct. But no, he has merely been hibernating, living off old chestnuts cannily stolen from other beasts. Breathtaking camouflage allows the Desmond to pass unremarked among Humans, although if we are patient and take careful notes his true nature may become apparent. See, for example, how the Desmond coaxes the few remaining hairs on his head into a vanity helmet, and note his trademark 'echo', whereby he repeats note for note cries we heard in his first television series so long ago. Really quite remarkable.

The Human Animal (BBC1), Desmond Morris's six-part series, began with an episode called The Language of the Body. The convoluted title could not disguise the fact that here was territory covered in Manwatching and The Naked Ape - what TV's own zoologist would presumably call the hat of the old. Luckily for the Desmond there is still some fascination in seeing our species put under the microscope, and spotting the hereditary tics that suggest what our ancestors were up to before they came down from the trees to take part in Danny Baker's Pets Win Prizes (BBC1).

Darwin postponed publishing his theory of evolution for 20 years because he had a fair idea of how the Victorians would react to being told that our family was other animals. Few of us now share their scruples, but you still got a mild frisson watching the opening sequence of Human Animal, in which a naked man and woman strolled through a shopping precinct. Nothing to do with sexual attraction: stripped of their protective coat, these 'puny primates' looked vulnerable and ghostly, like goldfish kept from the light. But it is by getting us back to these beastly basics - inverted lips, bulging buttocks - that Desmond can argue the case for zoologists (well, himself) to study us as they would any other creature.

Desmondwatching is likely to be more fruitful. Sitting in a restaurant in Malta the Desmond recalled that it was on that very spot that he had resolved to do for actions what dictionaries did for words. He remembered being prompted by his Publisher (a parasitical creature which generally scratches the Desmond's back, but at this point was clearly crawling up his bottom): 'He said to me, 'You know, you look at people the way that a birdwatcher looks at birds.' (The Desmond flexes his mouth here in imitation of a self-deprecating chuckle) And I said, 'Yeah, I suppose you could call me (lifts shoulders in shucks-it-was-nothing shrug) a manwatcher]' ' The plan, he conceded, was 'wildly ambitious'. Happily, it also involved travelling to 60 countries at the licence-payer's expense.

What he came up with is deeply muddled, a pick 'n' mix full of brightly coloured bits with no nutritional value. Surely there is a vast difference between the ape's grimace of fear evolving into the human smile, a headshaking gesture that has been around for 2,000 years, and the coded signals used by an American football coach? Desmond treats them all alike, blithely confusing cultural and genetic factors while inflating the importance of gesture. Over footage of Mussolini and Hitler making speeches, he intoned: 'Body language is so powerful, it can change the course of history and affect the behaviour of literally millions of people]' It can certainly make them buy daft books suggesting that fascism arose from over-use of the forefinger.

The Human Animal leaves you with a pile of questions. Why are almost no northern Europeans featured? If inducing laughter in patients releases pain-suppressing chemicals, how does that square with Desmond's theory that the smile was originally a sign of fear - surely fear would have released quite different chemicals? There will be no answers: the fact is, the Desmond can't stop to think for a moment because then it might occur to him that humans stop to think. That there are moral processes unique to our species which precede those shaking heads, those clumsy embraces.

The BBC has made a big mistake. Bring back that Morris chap, they said, the one with the animals. But they got the wrong Morris. Instead of Johnny with his wistful attempt to turn beasts into humans ('Well, Mr Camel, I don't mind if I do') we got Desmond - dress'd in a little brief authority, most ignorant of what he's most assur'd. Darwin would have been disappointed to see his theory go so badly awry: after all that, it was survival of the flippest.

Stages, BBC2's new series of plays conceived for the TV studio, attempted to take off with a work that suggested it might be an idea to start charging writers for excess baggage. Tony Marchant packed so much significance so tightly into Speaking in Tongues that there was no room for the pockets of feeling which could have given some life to this open-and-shut case. The superb cast - Bernard Hill, Lesley Sharp, Jonny Lee Miller - seemed spooked by the relentless solemnity. They needed a break; instead, like us, they were strapped in from the start for a guided tour of debasement, with particular reference to the inability of words to hold their value in a world of fakes. It was bad luck that the plot - housewife sells telephone sex, arousing loser husband to murderous rage - had been tackled so recently by Robert Altman in Short Cuts. But it wasn't luck that made Altman's treatment so interesting. He wasn't afraid of contradictions, gleeful spasms of personalitywhich send the moral scheme off course: his housewife got high on the low life. The fate of Lesley Sharp's Susan, on the other hand, was sealed from the first scene when, with her husband home from his fake job in the heritage museum, she reached a fake climax just as the fake racing car in her son's video game exploded. Guess the theme, anyone?

As Marchant showed in Goodbye Cruel World, he can't leave well alone: there, his beautifully calibrated account of a woman's wasting disease was hitched to some bogus plot about evil doings in a charity. This tendency to overkill could easily be remedied by a good script editor. One who might, for instance, have pointed out that the character of the refrigerator salesman in Speaking in Tongues was far cruder than anything Susan whimpered down the phone.

The death of Terry Scott, a comedian blessed with a whoopee-cushion face and the best wounded pout since the great Francis Howerd, had the news resurrecting clips of Terry and June. They were dire: sexist and flatulent. The golden age of sitcom is now - in the US. BBC2 has wisely beaten Channel 4 to Grace Under Fire, a wonderfully smart account of a single mother living on her wits, or rather those of a battalion of writers. It makes the British equivalent look neanderthal.

The heat scrambled so many brains across the nation that it was finally safe for BBC1 to release Big Country Quest. 'We'll be trying our hand at a host of ancient, almost-forgotten rustic crafts which seemed like a piece of cake a few generations ago,' beamed our host Nick Owen, on parole from morning television. The two teams were led by the ancient, almost-forgotten Liza 'Yes, Honestly' Goddard and Emlyn 'No, Seriously' Hughes. Soon they would be planting potatoes with shire horses, but first Emlyn had to catch and shear a sheep - or was it the other way round? 'This is not an ordeal for the sheep,' insisted Nick, as the former Liverpool captain disappeared into the woolly cumulus.

Nor did the loftier denizens of the corporation escape sunstroke. Newsnight (BBC2) ran a grainy black-and-white trailer for its Rwanda Special, in which its own editorial team starred as sexy go-getters ready at the flick of a Mont Blanc pen to command the services of anyone from Bishop Tutu to 'someone from Comic Relief'. Whoa] The camera lurched around like a drunk in a Cassavetes movie, giving a tremulous glamour to an unremarkable bunch of thirtysomethings. Our brightest screen journalists had just bought into the macho posturing and rabid hype that bedevils their mindless cousins. The excellence of the advertised programme did not make up for the fact that they had made a drama out of a crisis. And no one could ask the Rwandan people if they minded. It was over their dead bodies.

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