REVIEW : No scoop for a newsman as happy as Harry

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The Independent Culture
Harry (BBC1), as has been fairly widely reported, has had a face- lift. The first series of the Michael Elphick vehicle was apparently deemed rather dour and down in the mouth by the viewers and, after focus-groups to identify the problems and a few weeks to let the scars heal, it has returned with a strangely taut smile. The result, an unprecedented outbreak of journalistic ethics centring on the Darlington area, is decidedly odd.

"Break the door down, everyone does that," suggests a photographer to the young journalist trying to doorstep an old-age pensioner who is selling a bravery medal. "No, we can't do that," replies the reporter, as though he suspects that the place has been wired for sound by the Press Complaints Commission. "Shall we come back another time?" he enquires gently, after the old man has proved reluctant to talk. The photographer himself, dispatched to take pictures of a cleaning lady in her knickers, returns empty handed: "She's doing it for her kid - I came out of it feeling awful," he explains wistfully. If things go on like this, the press agency will be bankrupt before the end of the second series.

There is a game attempt to leave Harry with some residual menace - "Your heart froze up years ago," says his pretty sparring partner, a young reporter on the local paper. "A pike like you doesn't share its pond." Perhaps not, but a pike like Harry would probably be caught gently nudging ducklings to safety with its snout. Given a juicy story about the shocking past of a star footballer's wife, Harry turns marriage counsellor and helpful spin-doctor. "Don't worry," he reassures her, "the bastard on your back is my main course." Cue a sympathetic spoiler in the national press and a snarling blackmailer shown the door. Perhaps a change of title is in order now, too - something like Hello Harry!

Spare a thought for Miranda Richardson, currently enduring the unique discipline of narrating a Mark Harrison documentary. The last victim was Tilda Swinton, who intoned her way through Visions of Heaven and Hell, Channel 4's series about technological change. Richardson has been called in for Magic Animals (BBC2), a striking set of films about animals in myth; supernatural history, you could say. Last week she lurked in a sound- stage wood, dressed in furs and murmuring Delphic remarks about bears. This week she was made up to look like a dolphin and had to say things like, "Only now do we need them, only now do they seem to carry for us a message - an answer to all that went before and all that will come after."

But if this sort of thing doesn't make you grind your teeth to clinker, and if your sanity can survive the noodling ambient music that runs unbroken in the background, then there are real pleasures in the films. It feels like a talent misapplied to me, but a talent it undoubtedly is. Harrison through-composes his films with the same dogged persistence as his composer, styling each shot with slightly fantastic details. Sometimes this makes you bark with laughter, as when a dolphinoid sculpture from the studio suddenly appeared in a field, presumably in silent rebuke of the chemical works in the background. At other times they have an allusive force which reminds you how drably literal most documentaries are, how unconcerned with visual insinuation.

Introducing the moment at which humans first started to explore underwater, Harrison showed you a door floating on the sea swell, the colours echoing those of the ceremonial space from which Richardson delivered her text. Underneath the grim New Age blarney there is a proper thoughtfulness about some of the ideas explored. Maybe a few pretensions are a lot better than no ambitions at all.