The great white gets a seal of approval

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The Independent Culture
There's something vaguely comic about the great white shark. No, don't laugh. If you accidentally found yourself in the drink with one, you'd obviously want to keep the joke to yourself, but doesn't that gummy mug remind you of a grandmother napping slack-jawed without her dentures? Steven Spielberg has hushed up the presence of the loveable pussycatfish lurking under the skin of the fearsome great white.

It's the arrogance of man to demonise as a monstrous killing machine a creature that, statistically speaking, poses a threat to our species as skimpy as the bikinis worn on the shores it allegedly hunts. We live on land, the shark in water, so what's all the fuss about? But any seals watching last night's Wildlife Special, "Great White Shark" (BBC1) had every right to start worrying.

Actually, intimated David Attenborough, who held the fort in the voiceover studio and promptly came out in a rash of Romantic poetry, the shark's primary prey have been worrying for millions of years. But there isn't one seal in Jaws, Jaws 2, Jaws III, Jaws the Revenge, or the forthcoming sequel, not yet on general release but reportedly "gobsmacking", Jaws Uses Martin Amis's Orthodontal Cosmetician. We know very little about the great white, and what we do know seems to have been written out of the movie scripts.

Even while pooh-poohing popular fiction, this documentary found itself seduced by the rules of suspense. When a shark off the South African Cape snaffled up a meal of baby seal, the storyboarding looked familiar: innocent infant blithely strays; flapping adults sense danger and flee; stillness; and then the kill. The only thing missing was the wailing mother, amid the general commotion, waiting for her offspring to return with the pack.

This film came with a seal of approval, from Peter Benchley, the man who wrote Jaws, which is a bit like Michael Crichton rubber-stamping a scientist's findings on the stegosaurus. Given that the novelist whose thrills are drawn from the natural world is reliant on the knowledge of experts, this was a particularly implausible case of the tail wagging the dog.

Benchley's recommendation of "the finest white shark documentary I've ever seen" (exactly how many have there been?) was presumably based on the fact that, for the first time, the close-up filming was not done from within a cage. Actually, most of the daring underwater camera work didn't involve humans at all. One camera was mounted on a pole and thrust under the surface, another was buried into a surfboard and, astonishingly, a so-called "crittercam" was noosed round a shark's dorsal fin. There were BBC cameramen in the soup, but it was the plucky surfboard that got the shot of the great white, no longer resembling your granny, charging the lens with a view to consuming it whole. They liked this sequence so much they showed it four or five times.

The Great Kandinsky (BBC1) picked up the theme of aquatic danger and ran with it. With his usual soulful braggadocio, Richard Harris played a wrinkled escapologist, confined to an old people's home, whose one remaining ambition is to master the underwater torture trick.

A line or two called for a ripple of applause: "Illusionists are disappearing fast" was a nice one. Generally, though, the galloping eccentricity of Kandinsky's fellow inmates was matched only by that of Terry Winsor and Julian Dyer's Gothic slapstick script. The climax invited you to believe that an escapologist can drown, be carried to his tomb and then rise from the coffin, whereupon he announces that a master never reveals his secrets. Even Houdini couldn't have pulled off that one. It was probably just a way of saying that the bold'uns among the old'uns can cheat death. All the same, the literalist in you felt cheated, too.