REVIEW: Ricki, Joani, Angel and David Attenborough

Watching Ricki Lake, a late-afternoon import on Channel 4, I was reminded of the answer a Hasidic Jew gave once when he was asked why he didn't have a television. "Because it's the spiritual equivalent of having an open sewer running through your living room," he replied, presumably choosing his words tactfully, given that it was a television crew that had put the question.

Naturally I can't go along with this, though it's undeniable that some unsavoury things drift down the channels now and then and you do worry whether they might carry some moral contagion with them. The trouble is that the base instincts are so biddable.Who could resist an exploratory sniff at a programme sub-titled "I Can't Believe You Left Me for That"? Lots of you, perhaps, but not me, I'm afraid, even if I spent most of the programme feeling ashamed of myself.

Ricki Lake is one of those American fiestas of humiliation in which all the participants carry little labels ("Breast fed son till he was 18", "Drinks wife's blood", "Conceived by alien" - that sort of thing). It's a down-market Oprah, if that's conceivable, a programme that seems to trawl lower in American society, dragging in the bottom-feeders. In this case we were offered Joani ("Dumped by Brad Right Before Their Wedding"), a woman who decided to share her rejection with the world, not to mention Br ad and his new lover.

Brad was clearly auditioning for America's Most Wanted; a wild-eyed, dentally challenged redneck who looked as if he would be most at home up a belltower with a sniper's rifle. Joani said she wanted him back but I suspect this was just elegant strategy, a way to get the audience on her side, because she played the revenge card with some subtlety, limiting herself to the odd superior glance sideways.

Angel was less reserved, obviously encouraged by the hoots of derision that greeted her substitute's appearence. "You should see their bathtub!" she shrieked, drawing an appreciative whoop from the audience. Angel knew what was required of her. "He gave me a venereal disease!" she yelled, just before the discussion became incoherent with mutual contempt. The guests have no shame, the audience has no compassion and the producers presumably have no complaints from the advertisers.

If television is a sewer, then David Attenborough is one of its best disinfectants, his work invariably enlisted by anyone who wants to argue for the medium's cultural or intellectual value. This is a dull thing to say about the programmes but unavoidable; watching The Private Life of Plants (BBC1) it's impossible to imagine Charles Darwin, for example, turning away and saying "I have far more important things to do than look at television." Actually, Attenborough's programmes always seem to me a powerful argument for evolutionary theory, even when they content themselves with worshipping the irrepressible ingenuity of nature. Even the most puritanical Creationist would let his children watch this, but how would you feel about God if you really believed he'd done all the assembly work? You'd have to think of Him as an insane sort of hobbyist, staving off His infinite boredom by twiddling with nature. Evolution creates a caterpillar that makes a little house out of a leaf and then eats its way out again because it doesn't know any better - indeed it doesn't know anything at all, it just operates, driven by the singular urge for survival.

This mindless purity of motive must be part of the appeal of nature programmes, a world that may appear sinister or cruel at times but never forces us to make moral judgements. You aren't going to get a bereaved fly appearing on Ricki Lake, screaming abuse at a Pitcher Plant with a label saying "Seduces insects with nectar, then drowns them".

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