TV Review: Horizon (BSE crisis)

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The Independent Culture
At one point in Horizon's two-part account of the BSE crisis (BBC2), the camera zoomed in on the word "panic". It was a description, as it happened, taken from a headline. But by this stage of Horizon's scientific horror story, it had almost the force of an instruction to the audience. Take the beginning of the second part, for example, in which a scientist prepared himself to dissect the brain of someone who had died of the new CJD variant - he pulled a pair of chain-mail gauntlets over his surgical gloves and then donned another pair of rubber gloves over that; then he pulled on a perspex visor and helmet. These precautions were perfectly sensible, in light of the fact that nobody yet knows exactly how infectious the agent is (or even what it is), but on screen they were employed as an image of confirmed terror - this wasn't a scientist observing routine procedures so much as a knight preparing to face the enemy. Similarly, at the very beginning of the programme, a gloved hand had pulled a tiny test-tube out of a swirl of vapour (a perfect image for primordial threat). At the bottom, there was a smear of amber-coloured material, "enough purified BSE to kill 10 million cows", explained the voice-over before adding the box-office kicker, "...and it might kill you, too".

Horizon is not an irresponsible programme, and these devices - borrowed from the world of science-fiction - were not employed with an entirely reckless disregard for the composure of the viewers. But they did illustrate an almost insoluble problem with the subject. BSE - its origins, its aetiology, the threat it poses to humans - remains a complex and unresolved story, and yet from this raw material, Horizon must process some kind of coherent narrative, accessible to a non-scientific audience. In doing so, they are liable to enlist story-telling devices which have little to do with rational assessment, everything to do with holding your attention.

Good thrillers usually need a villain, for example, and in this case it was supplied by the prion, a protein which theoretically has the ability to convert others to its cause. Horizon described the prion in the terms you would associate with an alien invader - almost undetectable, almost indestructible, fabulously virulent. In fact the prion theory remains contentious, heavily backed by protein scientists who (quite properly) wish to secure funding for further research, but questioned by scientists in other fields. And though Horizon was prepared to allow for scientific uncertainty when it came to the extent of the human threat, it did so on almost every occasion to amplify the dread rather than diminish it: "Each time you're exposed, you're taking another chance," said one scientist, "you're filling out another lottery ticket." It was illustrative of the general bent of both these films that you didn't hear this as a reassurance about your tiny chances of contracting the disease - you heard it as "It could be you".

Secret Lives' film about Jeremy Thorpe (C4) opened with David Steel describing the story of his fall as a "tragedy of almost Shakespearian proportions". Barbara Castle took exception to this, arguing that Thorpe was simply a victim of his own ruthless charm. This account of grace brought low by folly suggested they might both be right. If Thorpe's hubris - his proud refusal to be brought low by someone so far beneath him - was the cause of his fall then, for once, that much abused word "tragedy" would be appropriate.

Roy Ackerman's film challenged the verdict arrived at by the jury in Thorpe's trial - with some of those acquitted confessing to their involvement in at least some kind of conspiracy. But it also left some questions unasked: did Andrew Newton really intend to kill Norman Scott, for example, or was the jammed gun just a ghastly pantomime designed to terrify him into silence? Why did Thorpe's former friends turn on him so suddenly? And was it really necessary to show the film of Thorpe after the onset of Parkinson's, a sad image of decay which had nothing to do with culpability, everything to do with nature's cruel ability to kick a man when he is already down?