REVIEW / Ole man river, he just keeps waffling

'I AM Sador of the Malmori . . . I possess a stellar convertor, the most powerful weapon in the universe,' boasted a man in Bacofoil early yesterday morning. He had a birthmark across one eye, which, in the way of these things in Hollywood films, had given him a difficult childhood and turned him from the path of goodness into a destroyer of worlds. I like the idea of a stellar convertor; very handy for television executives, though, when you come to think of it, they already have their own. Point a camera at virtually anything and it turns into a star.

The effect was well demonstrated in Survival's 'Return to the Forgotten River' (ITV), in which a pregnant hippo turned in a performance of such sustained tear- jerking power that you wondered about the possibilities for an amphibian Bafta. The film invited you to identify emotionally by couching itself as an extended fable. 'In the African country of Botswana there was once a paradise . . .' it began, evidence that this was a film intended for an American audience, who might otherwise have thought Botswana was a few miles outside Brussels. It sounded like a fairy tale and that was how it continued, a quest narrative driven by the search for water.

Paradise had dried out, leaving the lions lapping at damp clay and the hippos wallowing in mud (contrary to received opinion, they don't seem to like this). This was serious but, as the script reminded you portentously, 'Africa is an ancient place, its inhabitants have ancient memories . . . all had to make the journey to the forgotten river'. The hippo, rheumy-eyed and disconsolate (like Willie Whitelaw in a wet suit) was left behind, its temporary refuge in a rain-water pond churned to gruel by a herd of elephants who larked around like Club 18-30 tourists. They had missed the sign which read: 'Please Leave the Waterhole As You Found It'. At this point you wouldn't have been surprised if the hippo had teamed up with a chirpy baboon and an antelope with attitude and started cracking moany jokes (Thora Hird for the voice-over, perhaps) but you were distracted from your irritation with the script by the beauty of the images.

Dereck Joubert was a bit too besotted with backlighting but you could have forgiven him a lot more silhouettes of elephants against the sunset for the front-lit pictures he secured. Maybe the script, buzzing around your ears like a tsetse fly, coloured what you saw, but it was difficult to look at these things without seeing them as special effects, all part of the unfolding fairy story. Time-lapse photography turned the landscape from fecundity to desert in seconds, as though a curse had been visited on the land; migrating birds swirled like vapour over the marshes, the wind from millions of wings swaying the reeds beneath them; buffalo nervously contemplated the lions who wanted to turn them into steak tartare, eyes glaring like headlamps out of the dark.

The hippo, feeling that the production was slipping away from her, played her trump card and produced a baby, a badly- set blackcurrant jelly which wobbled and staggered behind her. Even the hyenas stopped giggling to go 'Aaahhh'. By now the mother was moving as slowly as the minute hand on a watch, drawn onwards through the dust by the scent of water. Rather cruelly she had to fight for a place in the herd when she eventually reached safety but even that gave her an opportunity to display her range - I don't know who the fight-arranger was but the slow- motion battles with other dominant females were magnificent.

By now the narration was prompting ribald comment from the cheaper seats. 'The river moves to its own rhythm,' you were told. What did they expect it to do - put on a Bee Gees record and disco its way to the sea? 'For millions of years,' the voice continued, 'the crocodiles of Linyanti have played out an ancient ritual.' 'Have you got your costume ready for the ancient ritual yet?' you imagined them asking each other. 'Comes round again so quickly, dunnit?' The script was Jonathan Cobbler's.

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