TODAY'S TELEVISION

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The Independent Culture
Nightmares of Nature (BBC1) opened with an episode sub-titled "Maneaters". Not an entirely dispassionate taxonomy - things that might eat you. So it wasn't surprising to find that the programme addressed itself to human attitudes as much as to biology. We've been here before in fact, and quite recently too, but where Mark Harrison's Magic Animals was happy to reinforce mythical conceptions of nature, Nightmares of Nature appeared undecided about its chief ambitions.

On one hand, the project seems to be one of disenchantment, trying to redress the balance on behalf of the fabled villains of the animal world. On the other hand, they can't resist the thrills of reconstruction, all of which serve to reinforce our murky hind-brain fears. The result is rather odd - a horror movie with a reassuring voice-over.

The programme began with a convincingly toe-curling reconstruction of a crocodile attack on Doctor Val Plumwood, all water-level camera angles and sudden flurried blurs of action. Dr Plumwood was innocently paddling her canoe up a creek when she bumped into a floating log. A few seconds later, the log had a death-grip on her crotch and she was going under. Then it let her go, and, as if it had been watching horror videos down at the bottom of the swamp, waited until she had clawed herself halfway up the bank (and until the viewers were all uncrossing their legs), before suddenly reappearing for another go. Doctor Plumwood escaped eventually, but plenty don't. Crocodiles, you were told, kill around 1,000 people a year.

Even this programme, intent on disrupting our preconceptions, conceded that they weren't very nice, but it wanted to reassure British viewers: "For most of us," it pointed out usefully, "the chances of the man-eating nightmare becoming a reality are extremely slim." Well, yes, it would follow, really - the odds against finding a crocodile at the bottom of a Safeways freezer cabinet being equally remote. To put the statistic into context even further, the narration pointed out that 1,000 people die on Europe's roads every 10 days. This may be true, but it still doesn't do much to change my view of crocodiles, which have an unpleasantly monomaniac streak. Cars may kill, but they do lots of other things too - when was the last time you took the kids to school on a crocodile?

The numbers game was played throughout, to slightly baffling effect. You are, apparently, 25 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a bear - though the thought occurred that you could probably significantly bugger up the odds by playing golf in Morecambe during a thunderstorm. The total number killed by big cats each year is "only" 500, a number which didn't sound tiny enough to me. Nor was it clear why, if 500 is really neither here nor there, the 250 people killed by Indian elephants every year should be advanced as evidence of their unremarked deadliness. It does seem true that, as meaty creatures, we have difficulty getting worked up about herbivores, even though African buffalo and hippos are far more dangerous than lions and crocodiles. Then again, how would you begin to make the African buffalo, with its ludicrous Jackie O perm, or the hippo - nature's bath-toy - into an icon of dread?

Wildlife Showcase (BBC2) was subtitled "Bambi - the True Story", as if it were going to offer a no-holds-barred account of woodland's most famous one-parent family. In fact, it was pretty Disney itself, a fairly cutesy account of one fawn's life, constructed out of whatever footage came to hand in the Chambord Forest. This is standard operating procedure for natural history films, which routinely pretend that many different animals are a single one, but it was nicely subverted here by the fact that stags grow bigger horns every year - very important for the stag's self-respect, but a nightmare for continuity.

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