REVIEW : The germ of an idea that bears surprising fruit

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The Independent Culture
Much of David Attenborough's career has involved taking viewers to sites few had seen before - from 50 feet deep in the Red Sea to knee deep in subterranean bat guano. In The Private Life of Plants (BBC1), he does something a little different - h e makessights that no one has seen before, using time-lapse and slow-motion photography to reveal the hidden liveliness of plants. In an English wood a bramble reaches out, flickering with spiny menace. By some ingenuity, this doesn't even suffer from t he waythat passing insects show up in time-lapse sequences as scratches on the film; nor did the supporting shrubbery jerk and jump. It was as if everything had gone very still while some blind malevolence felt for a victim.

Which is going some for a common garden nuisance, and suggests that Attenborough's central project - to make vegetables lively - has paid off. The trails for the programme have been decidedly nervous, almost apologetic. The Radio Times went even further,elaborating on that teasing title with some tabloid splashes ("Horror! Attack of the strangler figs"). Attenborough's narration draws the line at such outright anthropomorphism, but wasn't above indulging in a bit of "faunapomorphism", trea ting his subjects less as organic machines than sentient agents. "For some plants, that is simply not good enough," he said, discussing a bizarre ploy for seed dispersal, and you imagined them all getting together for an angry protest meeting. When the c amera tracked a sea-bean as it bobbed past a herd of hippo, you were mildly anxious in case it got eaten before it had fulfilled its biological destiny.

The images are beautiful, a succession of insanely complicated accommodations with the adversity of the physical world. Earthstars, pallid flashers of the fungus world, expose themselves in rainy weather and spurt out little clouds of spores when stimulated by random raindrops; the birdcage plant rolls across the desert using its enemy, the wind, to transport it to a less exposed position; the squirting cucumber spills its seed upon the ground from a testicular pod. Just as the invisibly slow is speededinto motion, the invisibly swift is slowed until the actions seem muscular and willed. You watch in wonder and offer up silent thanks that human reproduction doesn't depend on the intimate participation of an Indian rhino.

Watching Dispatches's (C4) excellent report on the British trade in instruments of torture, it was difficult to know whether to be more shocked by the cheerful indifference of those involved, their shameless mendacity when confronted, or their incompetence at their own trade. There is something delicious about seeing a man declare that his specialisation is counter-surveillance, when he is being filmed by a secret camera and duped by an undercover reporter. That, however, was the only sweet moment in Martyn Gregory's report, which established that despite much parliamentary humbug from the Government, electro-shock batons are traded and even manufactured in Britain. These are described as "riot-control weapons", but torturers world-wide will give glowing testimonials about the convenience with which they deliver extreme pain.

"They're all grown men, they know what they're doing, don't they," was the closest any of those involved came to a moral argument about this. The Government appears to be obligingly incompetent at policing its own notional rules - Samir Mansour, the fictional Middle Eastern buyer who acted as bait, was cleared to visit Royal Ordnance headquarters by both the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence, despite the fact that the address on his business card was that of a derelict building. What wasn't slo ppy was sleazy - blind eyes and greased palms - a hugger-mugger world in which the deal is all and consequences don't matter a damn.