Review / It's too cold for comfort, but even here . . .

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The Independent Culture
FIVE weeks into David Attenborough's Antarctica trip, and things aren't getting any warmer. Last night it was winter at the Pole, which is a kind of meteorological tautology. Basically, there was snow and ice already, but the weathermen were saying there was plenty more on the way. Winds got up to 120 mph, the temperature got down to a fairly bracing minus 70. Oh yes, and in the centre, the sun went out for a month. All in all, we were not exactly in what American travel agents call 'a destination country'. Still, there's always the summer to look foward to, when temperatures soar to a sweltering minus 30.

Life in the Freezer (BBC 1) is carved according to the traditional Attenborough format: which is to say, the crew presses deep into one of the world's most god-forsaken regions, in order to pave the way for the classic Attenborough sentence - the one beginning, 'Even here . . .' At which point, our hero lifts aside the dead leaf / cactus sprig / charred rock at his feet to reveal something that is, he reliably informs us, alive. But the current series is that format's apotheosis. Attenborough is showing himself prepared to go to the end of the earth for this trick, and we should be grateful to him.

After all, on the surface it's hard to think of anywhere that God has forsaken quite so peremptorily as the South Pole (although the North Pole must run it fairly close). But then, this is to adopt exactly the lazy, snowist, ice-ist thinking that Attenborough is here to enlighten. He took us to the dry valleys, where Nasa once tested a vehicle for use on Mars. 'It hasn't snowed or rained here for centuries,' Attenborough remarked fairly casually, just before pointing out one of the area's few potential tourist traps - a 3,000- year-old, mummified seal, freeze-dried by the wind. Still, you guessed it: 'Even here . . .' said Attenborough, cracking open a lump of stone to reveal a thin ribbon of green lichen running through it. A millimeter below the surface, life goes on.

We watched seals flip about under water, 'the dim blue light filtering through the ceiling of ice'. And we learned that emperor penguins make a noise strikingly like radio-controlled toy cars. In May, when the weather is about to get as foul as it can and while the seals are setting off north for what they laughably think of as warmth, the penguins, in an act of headstrong perversity, group up and march further south. Once there, they stand in a giant huddle in the dark, shifting around to keep warm, You've seen nothing so pointlessly miserable since the days when they used to have terracing at Tottenham Hotspur.

During these moments, the photography was so good that the temperature plummeted in the room. In fact, Life in the Freezer is altogether a staggering piece of work and it's hard to know where Attenborough could go next. Perhaps he should check back with Nasa about that Mars vehicle.

Alternatively, he could fly to Hollywood and try to find life as we know it there. If you believe what you were shown on Hollywood Women (ITV), there are parts of Los Angeles which make Antarctica seem positively balmy. 'Being poor is a state of mind,' said one of the richer contributors to last night's edition, a comment so crass you could be sure the speaker had no first-hand experience either of poverty or of states of mind.

The topic was money and you had to pick the comments out of that irritating flicker of cuts which the series has made its own. It's an arrangement which has the unique two-way result of insulting the viewer's intelligence while flattering that of the interviewees, nearly all of whom get to appear sharp and quick-witted, pithy and insightful thanks to the spurious crispness of the editing. Such was the dearth of recognisable feeling or response that it was possible to find Roseanne Arnold remarkable for humanity. Still, watching David Attenborough tends to leave you with a lasting glow of wonder and charity. So, doubtless, even here . . .

Thomas Sutcliffe is on holiday.

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