TELEVISION / Where the wild things aren't

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The Independent Culture
ACCORDING to the old showbiz adage, you should never work with children or animals. A wily bird, the old showbiz adage wouldn't have been seen dead spending three nights of live television waiting for wild beasties to show up on an infra-red camera. Someone had forgotten to pass this tip on to Jessica, Fergus and Nick who manned Nightshift (BBC2) with an optimism that was as misplaced as it was necessary. 'One thing I can promise you, with 30 live cameras we're 99 per cent sure to get everything,' beamed Jessica from a farmhouse kitchen that was acting as Mission Control. Never underestimate the power of the 1 per cent, honey.

Outside, the world was mushroom soup: viscous grey with waving stalk-like fronds. You were about to give the set a good thumping when Jessica said: 'This is an infra-red picture live from a secret location in Somerset.' She wasn't kidding: a location so secret not even the animals knew how to find it.

Up in Nottingham, Nick, an excitable tomboy (imagine Julie Covington as Blue Peter presenter), showed us a badger set in a back garden: 'I'll leave our stage quiet and get ready for the stars to appear]' Jessica was ecstatic: 'So Nick's got a whole gamut of possibilities up there in Nottingham.' In Somerset, Fergus, a cheery bald man, was looking for a hare. He appeared to have more chance of growing one than finding one, but an expert was on hand: 'Tony has been watching hares practically through this window for the last 15 years.' Suddenly, a light-sensitive camera turned a field thick with night into a frowsy Monet: through a buttery cloud of celandines you could just make out a furry grey V - ears. 'Well,' said Fergus, 'I can't give you the sense of drama here]'

In Nottingham, Nick had fingers crossed for badgers and foxes, but made do with a reluctant hedgehog. Ticks slid down its magnified spines like beads of spit. Back at the farm, a camera stared dolefully at corrugated iron, while Jessica burbled: 'I promise there are badgers underneath.' Cut to a swag of cow parsley: 'Somewhere in there I promise you faithfully there's a harvest mouse.' There is a silence. 'But we can't see it at the moment.'

There were shades of Harry Carpenter in the rain at Wimbledon: obscure facts ('So, Fergus, describe your camera equipment'), and a raft of films 'we prepared earlier'. When it worked it was sensational. A barn owl on her nest looked like a gourd encrusted with sesame seeds: when she preened you saw a pillow burst in slow motion. We learnt that every time the male returns he expects his oats. He brought in a mouse, copulated, picked up the mouse, walked out and came back with it: 'Two copulations for the price of one food item]' A surer snapshot of the male psyche you will not see outside of The Men's Room (BBC1).

Jessica's good humour began to sour: 'We've got so many fingers crossed we're not going to be able to move.' The fox wasn't in the fox run because it was 'too mobile'. 'Well, if we haven't got foxes here maybe they've got noxes in Fottingham?' 'No noxes,' giggled Nick, 'but we have got predators.' The camera closed in on a gluey web: the predators were a spider. 'It's a very big animal,' said Nick.

It was time to cheat. Rats pittered round a barn: with gratifying innocence Jessica admitted they were tame. The real rats had scarpered, leaving a sinking TV show, presumably. Things were no better with Fergus: 'I have to report that the hare has left the field. It's bad news in the sense that we can't see her anymore.' In Nottingham, it was bad news in the sense that we couldn't see anything. Nick produced a container. Inside a lazy amphibian eye blinked. Nothing like a toad-in-the-hole to get you out of one.

Everyman (BBC1) exposed the career of Sam Penney, Catholic priest and paedophile, who for 25 years took Christ's injunction to suffer little children literally. On one occasion he treated a couple to a holiday so he could 'look after' their daughter. The film set Penney's calculated evil against the savage complacency of the Birmingham archdiocese which, after reports of abuse and one arrest, merely moved Penney to new parishes where he found fresh prey while paying return visits to a family where he was abusing all five children. Now adults, the five shadowy figures spoke to us from a living-room where the light was as bleak as all the lost Sundays of childhood. But Eammon, abused from the age of 12, bravely showed us his face and his helplessness: 'Who could speak out against the priest?'

One proud parent captured Penney on video at a Nativity play: with a wavy smile and darting dark eyes, he urged his parishioners to 'love your own' while behind him tiny angels bobbed under crooked haloes. Deborah Perkin's angry film wisely kept its temper: a polite but persistent female voice pressed Maurice Couve de Murville, Archbishop of Birmingham, till his eyes swivelled away from the camera. After statements like 'That's the truth as we see it' she held the shot on his face a fraction too long so you saw the tight smile drop. Two families have started legal proceedings against him, as a representative of the church, for sins of omission. At the end, we saw Eammon kneeling in a pew: 'Here they are setting themselves up as high and mighty while children have been abused. They knew he was an abuser. I think it's defenceless.' The wrong word, but maybe not. What would you call powerful men who preferred to run the risk of children being molested than allow their church to be embarrassed?

On Tuesday night, I was itching for Newsnight (BBC2) to come so I could get the best possible account of Sir Hal Miller's allegations against Sir Patrick Mayhew. Earlier news had made much of Sir Patrick's willingness to appear before the Scott inquiry. Enter Paxman, bearing spear: 'It was, in the circumstances, one of those opportunities the Government's top law officer couldn't really refuse.' A former Solicitor-General, looking like Godfrey in Dad's Army without the sweetness, was in the studio to tell us what a splendid fellow Sir Patrick was. It was a familiar picture. Sir Patrick will be just dandy: he's protected by an old buffer zone.

Every Sunday night, at about 9.30, I have this fantasy in which members of the BBC drama department club together to buy a bunch of swords, and fall on them. The output this year, with a few exceptions (Riff Raff Element, The Snapper, Nice Town), has been the worst in memory. A Question of Guilt looked terrific in Radio Times, with Cherie Lunghi playing a tough woman prosecutor. But Lunghi's fine performance could not rescue a thriller which, in an unprecedented act of daring, had dispensed with plot development.

It's a Mad World, World, World, World (BBC2) arrived from radio with some sharp sketches erratically performed by a young cast. Some skits were too long, others more lowlights than Footlights. But a brilliant Late Show spoof promised much, charting the decline of a Hallmark Cards poet from buoyant early texts such as 'Your Special Uncle' to the final, bitter 'You're Having a Baby, Can You Be Sure Who the Father Is?'

Back in the real mad world, on the Six O' Clock News (BBC1) Jeremy Bowen in Sarajevo reported the deaths of a young couple - he a Serb, she a Muslim - shot while fleeing the city. The man fell first 'but she had enough strength to crawl over to him. They died in each other's arms'. That briefly comforting thought was blasted by pictures of them still lying in no man's land, late blossom parachuting blithely onto the corpses. 'The bodies might have to stay there for months - both sides have claimed the right to bury them.' With mad dogs fighting over their bones, what will survive of them is love.

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