House of Saddam, BBC2<br/>The Tudors, BBC2<br/>The Lost Land of the Jaguar, BBC1

There's more drama in the jungle than in the stories of Saddam and Henry VIII
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

About 15 minutes into House of Saddam, there it was: the predictable, inevitable shot of the tyrant washing his bloody hands under ornate gold taps. The water fell with the dull clatter of expectations fulfilled. Still, this BBC docudrama succeeds in some ways. It doesn't succumb to doing Dallas in burqas, or sending up its subjects. It aims instead to be a Middle Eastern Richard III. Indeed, in one scene Saddam comforted a widow grieving, graveside, for the husband he had murdered, though unlike Richard he did not go so far as to seduce her there as well. House of Saddam is commendably restrained and commendably researched (archive footage is interwoven with great skill) but dramatically, I am afraid, it is dry as toast.

The production's synopsis on IMDb is marked "Spoiler Alert!", though we all know, I think, how this story ends. It has no suspense, and no sympathetic characters. The women fascinate, but they are background bit parts. As for Hussein's friends and henchmen, you know they're all about to become bone-and-blood splatters on the wall, so you try not to grow attached to any of them. It is not hard to succeed. There is not a single hero, unless that opening news footage of George Bush was ... Oh lord.

In fact, Bush's broadcast declaration of war – delivered with that mawkish little-boy-lost expression and more-in-sadness-than-in-anger voice – is the most captivating performance of the lot. Igal Naor's Saddam is either mental or sentimental, flipping like a swing door between the two, and the only electrifying performance (from Izabella Telezynska as his mother) was extinguished with a death-bed scene. Last year Channel 4 screened Saddam's Tribe, a bewilderingly similar project (please, ITV, don't follow suit) which was cruder, but more involving. At least that time there was a character we cared for, Saddam's dangerously naive daughter Raghad.

Power and renown go some way towards making a character interesting, but not the whole distance. The Tudors resumed its snail's crawl through history last week with Henry still lustfully pursuing Anne Boleyn. We are bored stiff; he is quite the other kind of stiff. He now has a spivvy little moustache, while she remains pert and unfascinating, a greedy WAG in a wimple. All the king's silver cannot make them a sympathetic pairing. Still, the series delivers certain cinematic pleasures, with its artful Holbein compositions and a show-stealing cameo from Peter O'Toole as Pope Paul III, smooth and deadly as a dish of poisoned cream. His cheek is curved and glaucous like a beautiful woman's death mask; his lip quivers with a barely perceptible smirk of self-consciousness ("I know, me as Pope – whatever next!"), while his eye glitters with a relaxed, senescent playfulness that lifts him up and beyond the whole benighted production.

The more I see of TV drama, the more I like the truth. The Lost Land of the Jaguar was an adventure documentary par excellence, a snatch of lush, wet jungle heaven. It explored the pristine rainforest of inner Guyana, in the company of a handful of keen-bean British naturalists. This was roughly like going to the garden of Eden with the Famous Five.

"Jeepers!" said cameraman Gordon (inset left) when he managed to get close to rare giant otters. Over by Kaieteur Falls, crew member Tim Fogg had mastered the art of understatement. "It's a bit damp!" he gulped as he abseiled underneath the cataract five times as big as Niagara. Meanwhile entomologist George was getting cosy with crickets, bats and whip spiders, entombed inside a hollow tree. "I don't think I've had as much fun in a log for a long time!" he laughed as he emerged, wiping the mulch from his eyes.

Shortly after, he was howling after feeling the bayonet of an army ant. Justine, the canopy expert, looked down on him serenely. "A crazy lot, entomologists," she said, seeming to forget that she had been stationed on a tiny platform 30ft up a swaying tree-trunk all day, looking out for squirrel monkeys.

She saw one, in the end. And it saw her, staring questioningly into the camera, wondering if it was friend or foe. The quality of the footage was heart-swellingly superb. A jaguar was caught pacing in front of the hidden camera like Naomi Campbell in front of her bathroom mirror. When he found the footage, Gordon the cameraman, who has worked in South American jungle all his career and never captured such sights before, lit up with the special delight of experience rewarded. The gentle comedy of the goofy scientists only added to this programme; through their eyes, the natural world seemed even more miraculous.

The purpose of the series is to document the riches of the Guyanese rainforest in the hope of stalling logging programmes. The threat of imminent destruction hung over everything. With the otters munching their fish and the rocket frog batting its golden eyelid, the jungle was as still and strong as the river before it reaches the falls.

Comments