REVIEW / Dial nine for no-nonsense entertainment

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The Independent Culture
IN PART ONE of a heart-stopping new series, a strong young man was trapped in a menacing situation. Terrified and impotent, there was nothing he could do to escape eventual suffocation as no one could hear his screams for help. But enough for now about Jo Brand and her conquests. First, 999 (BBC 1).

Michael Buerk is back with a second series about saving lives, and the debate about the programme's perceived sensationalism is doubtless due for another airing. Last night a crane operator who had a heart attack 180 feet up a ladder was winched to safety in a skip; a yachtsman was rescued in a storm off the Scilly Isles; one little boy almost asphyxiated on the polystyrene balls in his bean bag, and another was pulled from a muddy canal.

We were coasting along quite happily, thrilling to the camera angles and applauding the heroics of all concerned, until the children were ushered on. In the first two accounts, two primal elements of danger - altitude and water - tested the reserves of the rescue professionals to the limit. It was racy television and not remotely informative - unless you happen to own a yacht or operate a crane.

In the second two accounts it was not so much the efficiency of the police or the ambulance service that made you hold your breath, more the mortal danger encountered by the two boys. While peripherally advising you to prevent your toddlers crossing dual carriageways or eating bean bag balls, these two reports seemed aerodynamically designed to arrow straight in on the tear ducts.

Buerk's reportage from Ethiopia 10 years ago remains one of the most influential and humanitarian pieces of film in the medium's brief history. With him at the helm, you have to stop and think before you put 999 in the dock for elevating entertainment above instruction. Having stopped and thought, though, you conclude that after 50 minutes your pulse has been working much harder than your brain. The source of the programme is BBC Education, but the education was confined to the small slot in which you're told how to help a coronary victim.

Even here, the graphics were so busy that it was easy to miss the tips: with coronaries, you have to look for signs, and the word 'SIGNS' flashed by on the handle of a squash racket; the attack builds up slowly, so 'BUILDS UP SLOWLY' appeared on the spines of a stack of hardbacks. You get the picture, but did you 'TAKE DOWN THE ADVICE'? 999, in case it had escaped your notice, is television in capital letters.

The reconstructions themselves occupy a no man's land between the virtual reality played out by actors and reality replayed by the participants, so you never quite know where you are. Although their ordeals were portrayed by actors, the crane operator and the boy rescued from the mud appeared on camera to tell their story, but the yachtsman for some reason did not. While Buerk told us the RNLI crew appeared in person, on the building site only the poor acting suggested that the participants were playing themselves.

In the sea rescue, the reconstruction footage was augmented by a video taken by a bystander on the shore. His motives for doing so were unspecified but, a cynic could suggest, might just have had something to do with getting his work on this very show. Perhaps it should be renamed You've Been Saved]

Jo Brand: Through the Cakehole (C 4) is like a prequel to 999, in which cardiac arrest is actively promoted via the consumption of 'CAKES' and 'FAGS'. You have to hope that the gateau gag will make way for something else as the series progresses, but it would be safe to fear the worst. Brand subtitled the programme: 'Oh blimey, the fat bird's got a telly show', a sentiment in which the trademark whiplash of her tongue gives you two things to consider: one, she gets laughs out of being no oil painting; two, she has never had to sustain the joke on anything but game shows before. But there's no need to call the RNLI yet.