REVIEW / The misappliance of popular science

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HORIZON, the BBC's venerable and venerated science strand, is 30 years old. Some people would mark such a moment with a considered reflection on the programme's history, looking back at the errors and energy of youth. Others would just say, 'Ah, to hell with all that', and throw a big party with lots of flashing lights. David Malone, the producer of last night's anniversary programme, decided to do both. At the same time.

'The Far Side' was described in the publicity as 'a megamix of the culture and history of science'. In other words it was a rave party with a theme, the theme being the ways in which the ambition and glee of science had turned to hubris and doubt. After years of sober explanation, Horizon was going to let its hair down and get out of its head. The venue was a disused factory randomly scattered with symbolic objects. Various contributors wandered into this dislocated space, to stare at archive clips on giant overhead screens and to offer thoughts on the nature of science - as a substitute for conventional religion, as a concealed power structure, as a calculated distraction from more immediate issues.

Just in case you began to follow any of these unadorned arguments, Malone repeated bits of the soundtrack again and again and overlapped the images, projecting some of them on to pieces of statuary to ensure that they weren't recognisable. If you were feeling charitable you might use a word like 'weaving' or 'knitting' about these multiple strands, and if you were feeling very charitable you might argue that he ended up with a functional garment. But although fragments of the film snagged the attention, the whole looked like a tangled mess to me, a classic case of a producer having some fun at the expense of his audience.

Better that, I suppose, than a producer having a bad time at our expense, which was what seemed to be on offer in 'The Time of Our Lives', Michael Grigsby's film for Fine Cut (BBC 2) last Saturday. I wasn't going to write about this but it's niggled at me since I saw it, and I think it falls into the same category as last night's Horizon - films in which the style begins to peel away from the content, like badly hung wallpaper. No similarities, apart from that, because Grigsby's film was as far from the frenetic techno-pump of 'The Far Side' as you could imagine.

It had gone down with a terminal case of the Blank Stares, a condition that affects more and more documentary-makers these days. Sufferers compose their films out of long takes from fixed cameras - subjects wander in and out of frame and the camera refuses to turn its head; scenes of studied banality are composed and then held, for longer than you would think possible. It is a gloss of artistry that pulls a little con trick on the viewer; if you've got this much time to look, it must be worth looking at.

It ain't necessarily so. In Signs of the Times, a series which has had an unfortunate effect on less talented imitators, the Blank Stare had a purpose - look carefully at these domestic interiors, it suggested, and you will find clues to a life. In 'The Time of Our Lives', on the other hand, the effect was inert and null. Seventeen seconds of the night-time exterior of a pub gave way to 36 seconds of a suburban semi (time it on your watch and see how that feels). The record was one minute and 25 seconds of post-industrial landscape seen through a rain- smeared train window. Compounded with another of television's more baleful cliches, that of using news bulletin soundtrack to give images a little kick, it made for a film of dogged earnestness in which the notional subject, five generations of an East End family, was oddly obscured. In the end the look was not so much Blank Stare as Self Regard.