TELEVISION / Travel back in time

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The Independent Culture
THE distinguished travel writer Norman Lewis has three criteria in mind when he selects a destination. It must be as inaccessible as possible, the government should be despotic and malaria should be rampant. In other words, Thomas Cook don't do that.

If you were in a fussy mood you might object that anywhere you could reach by light aircraft didn't really qualify, but you would be hard-pressed to describe the village of Endoman as on the beaten track, unless those are the words you would use to describe an airstrip that looks like a beginners' ski-slope. And given that Lewis is now 84 you can afford to be a little generous with the definition. In any case there is an admirable, almost Victorian determination about the way in which he keeps up appearances. Despite the fact that his bathroom arrangements involved a steady flow of muddy yellow water from a stretch of bamboo piping that disappeared up a nearby hillside, he insisted on shaving.

The title of Chris Hooke's film - 'The Time Traveller', the latest of Channel 4's Travellers' Tales - was presumably intended to refer to the structure of Lewis's journey, in which he travelled from a Stone Age village ('The Past') through a local market town crowded with Indonesian settlers ('The Present') to a high altitude copper-mine carved out of a mountain ('The Future'). But it might equally have contained a reference to the slightly dated style of Lewis's narration.

Perhaps the problem was simply one of delivery, an unfamiliar medium forcing an awkwardness on a writer of elegance and wit. Certainly there were moments when you couldn't quite tell whether a joke was intended ('Cannibalism is a delicate subject and I must not overstep the boundaries of good taste') but at other times Lewis's genially bland remarks about those he encountered ('they're very nice people . . . thoroughly enjoyed m'self') recalled a minor royal on a grace and favour trip rather than one of our finest travel writers.

The result was a film which rocked unstably from National Geographic melodrama (Lewis's remarks about the volatile ferocity of the tribe he was visiting were backed up by images of hostile eyes peering through jungle foliage) to anthropological gravity (Lewis made his own hostility to the invasive activity of missionaries and miners pretty clear).

At times he appeared to be questioning the attitudes of those he was visiting (he pointed out, for example, that suicide among the women is 10 times higher than among the men), at others merely observing with a traveller's curiosity (one of the more unusual sights was that of women breastfeeding piglets, a vivid demonstration of their value in the tribal economy). Despite the fascination of what you were looking at, though, you couldn't help wishing for fewer pictures and more words.

Birthrights, BBC 2's series on 'British culture and identity, viewed from a black perspective' has a faintly uneasy smack of affirmative action about it, that sense that normal judgements have been suspended in favour of a greater good. Watching such programmes you always have the uneasy sense that complaints will be out of order - you're there for duty not pleasure. Last night's edition illustrated the problem rather well; the subject matter, the life of the black British composer Samuel Coleridge Taylor, was interesting, both for the light it cast on racial attitudes before widespread immigration and in its excavation of a reputation.

But was it necessary to make quite such a strenuous case for Taylor's supreme genius? 'Would you say that Coleridge Taylor is an ongoing bright star in the firmament?' Ian Hall, the ebullient presenter, asked one bemused expert, receiving a very long and very polite version of 'No'. Another witness noted that Coleridge Taylor was 'in the Encyclopaedia Britannica', a slightly desperate testimonial to a musician's greatness. This was special-pleading, a strategy which has become familiar in minority programming, but which is as counter-productive as it is unnecessary.