Michael Buerk and the bungle in the jungle

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The Independent Culture
In the best of all possible worlds, 999 would not exist. This is not just because no one has need of the emergency services in Utopia, but also because no one derives entertainment from the misfortune of others. But without it, spoofs like Jack and Jeremy's Police 4 (C4) would go the way of the dodo. The parody is a parasitical genre, and unfortunately the survival of the parasite rests on that of the host organism.

It's symptomatic of inbreeding in our cultural climate that Police 4 went out on the same evening as 999 Special (BBC1), whose narrative style it sniggeringly apes. After Baddiel and Skinner, Jack Dee and Jeremy Hardy are another example of solo comedians seeking security in the double act. You do worry that they spoofed too many things in one show: a series could never keep up the pace. The sketch about a tough Geordie actor-singer- songwriter called Jimmy Hard was deadly, especially in the revelation that he had adopted a stage name because Susan Hampshire was using his real one.

In 999 Special (BBC1) the host organism went on a field trip, and provided another example of our rapid-response media at work. You suspect that, even as a party of five British Army soldiers were stranded in the Malaysian jungle last year, the team behind Michael Buerk was planning the programme about their rescue, just as film-makers were already plotting the biopic the day Nick Leeson disappeared from Barings.

Let's pass over the fact that if you dial 999 at the bottom of a mile- deep gorge in Malaysia, you have a less than 100 per cent chance of getting through to the fire brigade. This was quite a scoop for the programme. The acting, as usual, was as woeful as the casting, but the story was too good to be ruined by either. One of the two British officers missing for 20 days took the precaution of filming the whole nightmare on his camcorder. However brief, this footage gave the reconstruction an extraordinary imprimatur.

And yet much of what is interesting about the story went unmentioned here. Heinously, we heard nothing of the fact that the rescue, a joint operation by the Malaysian and British military, took place against a background of the Pergau Dam affair, with relations between the two countries even lower than morale among the lost soldiers.

Less culpably, there was no dwelling on the meaning of it all. Whoever buys the rights to the docudrama will have free rein to interpret the unfolding narrative as yet another metaphor for national decline. That bit where the two British officers leave the Hong Kong soldiers at the bottom of the gully to seek help, only to be foiled by a huge cliff of mud - it won't take much imagination to make something of that.

Slipping down the slope, the two men duly set up camp and after a day or two were joined by the three soldiers from Hong Kong: "Obviously," concluded one officer, peeved that they had ignored instructions to stay put and wait for the advance party to raise the alarm, "they had doubted our ability to do it, and as it was they were quite right because we had failed on many occasions before."

With a petty and absurdly misplaced sense of propriety, the officer in charge wanted to be the last man out when the helicopter finally came to winch them away. As a bedridden spectre, he and one other were summarily removed a day before the others. Having caused such an extraordinary inconvenience, and incurred for the British taxpayer a bill of God knows how much, the officer would only admit to the sin of "overconfidence". You suspect that the public reunion with his wife was not organised solely as carrion for the media vultures but also a form of rapid-response punishment handed down by his superiors.

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