TELEVISION / The pain in Spain falls mainly on Ffyona

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The Independent Culture
'SPAIN,' said the voiceover in The Longest Walk (BBC 2). 'The film crew are here with Janet Street-Porter, who's arranged to interview Ffyona along the way. But there's a problem. Ffyona has decided to pull out of the series.' He might have added, 'And we haven't got a decent scriptwriter. Yours truly has to read out guff like, 'The woman she (Street-Porter) wants to know is glamorous and complex.' Plus, we suspect that Street-Porter - who, it says here, is an experienced walker herself - is just along for a nice holiday with some light interviewing duties thrown in. If Ffyona pulls out, it's adios to the freebie.'

The programme, out of which Ffyona Campbell (nee Fiona Campbell) did not pull, follows her on the European leg of her attempt to circumnavigate the planet. Even as you read, she's bearing down on John O'Groats, where 10 years ago she began her rather extravagant brand of psychotherapeutic self-help.

When the voiceover says she's glamorous, that's tabloid shorthand for pretty and posh. To call her complex is just a polite way of admitting that it's easier to admire her than like her. In common with most obsessive explorers, Ffyona is patently mixed up, so someone has taken the decision to make a mixed-up series.

The main ingredients are (a) much psychobabble about Ffyona's hatred for her officer father, (b) much mollifying scenic photography and (c) much musing on her pack-mule. So no more need to watch Video Diaries, Holiday or Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Mules But Were Afraid to Ask: they're all here. The programme's form apes the content of the subject's mind.

One of the things you might have wanted to know about mules is that, rather like this programme, they're a cross between a horse and a donkey. Apparently, long journeys for mules, like the one Ffyona's taking hers on, are rare. Yes, really. And Spain is that large square-shaped country where you went on holiday last month.

Ffyona plainly chose an animal known for qualities she herself has found indispensable. After traipsing across Australia and Africa followed by beefy support drivers, there's nothing like a lone mule for company. And a Street-Porter.

A more appropriate companion for Campbell would have been Dr Anthony Clare, but he likes to detain people in chairs. As you'd expect from the headmistress of BBC Yoof working in conjunction with someone who hasn't sat down for a decade, The Longest Walk seems too fixated on jazzy jump-cuts to find out exactly what makes Ffyona tick. They've taken the 'FF' in Ffyona literally.

Meanwhile Big Break is back, and Alan Yentob, who commissioned Pets Win Prizes (but lose viewers) and The Opposite Sex (or the opposite channel?), can get some sleep. After a summer in which BBC 1 has striven and failed to deliver a light-entertainment hit, the sound of Jim Davidson cracking jokes scripted some time in the 1850s will smooth away the worry lines scored in by Danny Baker and Chris Tarrant.

Implicitly, the BBC even owns up to its populist deficiencies in its one success in this genre. Davidson's sidekick, John Virgo, was garbed as a Gladiator and flanked by two muscle-toned dollies in singlets and shorts. We may not be an ITV smash hit, but we dress like one.

In order for the snooker stars to play for prizes, the contestants have to go through the formality of answering questions - 'what do you get if you cross a horse and a donkey?', 'what is the name of the square-shaped country where you went on holiday last month?', brainteasers of that ilk. Its transmission time is probably when Yentob will catch up on his sleep.