Hurricanes and Heatwaves: the Highs and Lows of British Weather, BBC4 - TV review: a bright and breezy look at how the Met Office helps us see the bigger picture


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Weather, gets everywhere, doesn't it? Good news then for fans of people pointing at green screens as BBC4 – in an attempt to push the limits of its esoteric documentaries remit – last night delved into the history of our relationship with the weather. More specifically, with the lovely folk from the Met Office who try to predict it.

"Famously, the British weather is a national obsession," said Charlotte Green at the start of Hurricanes and Heatwaves: the Highs and Lows of British Weather (BBC4). A fact that perhaps betrays a level of national comfort that we don't always appreciate.

However, as residents of Tewkesbury, Aberystwyth et al might hastily point out, British weather can be brutal and isn't always just for small talk. It mostly is, though, which makes the timing of this exceptionally good.

Obviously, this being about Britain and the weather and all, the Michael Fish "no hurricanes here, guv" clip was played within 53 seconds. But one of the many curious vignettes revealed here was that Fish wasn't wrong. The 1987 "hurricane" was actually a heavy storm. However, Fish really didn't help himself with his put-down of the woman who rang in with a warning of a hurricane. Whether (weather?) his punishment of 25 years of sniggering was quite fair is possibly a matter for Thor and Zeus and chums.

Elsewhere, we learned that the BBC's first forecaster, George Cowling, took a shoeing from his Met Office bosses for ad-libbing in his first broadcast. His crime? Telling viewers that "tomorrow would be a good day for hanging up the washing". One wonders what punishment Tomasz Schafernaker would have copped for giving the camera the finger in 2010.

Green also alighted on the quite glorious fact that chaos theory emerged from the Edward Lorenz's work as a meteorologist. His idea has since given all forecasters the cop-out of being able to blame an unexpected storm on a butterfly flapping about in Tokyo.

Hurricanes and Heatwaves traced the art and science of weather prediction, from Robert FitzRoy's doomed attempts in the mid-19th century, through to satellite imagine and supercomputer-predicting today. It was less the story of changing weather than our changing relationship with it, a relationship – it seemed here at least – told through the way forecasts are presented. My favourite theory expressed on that matter being that Michael Fish's ridiculous jumpers acted as a unconscious warning that meteorology is an inexact science so don't be surprised if this buffoon gets it wrong.