Last Night's Television - Fat Man In A White Hat, BBC4; Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds, BBC1
Flashes of inspiration
Wednesday 17 March 2010
The power of the television camera to slow down time won't come as much of a surprise to anyone who's ever watched Lark Rise to Candleford or Cops with Cameras. There are programmes out there that can make you feel as if you're swimming through treacle. But
Richard Hammond's Invisible Worlds is built around a more literal kind of retardation – the ability of high-speed cameras to reveal events in the natural world that happen so quickly that our inbuilt visual equipment can't detect them. The science of this is fairly straightforward. Our brain takes about 150 milliseconds to process what we see. If something happens faster than that, then it's as good as invisible to us, unless we employ technology that can slice events more finely and play it back at reduced speed. And there's a kind of magic in this, similar to that venerable old enchantment of seeing time run backwards, which even the most rudimentary cine camera can pull off.
Hammond began in Rapid City, South Dakota, a good place to go if you want to get struck by lightning at the best of times, but made even more so by the decision to erect three giant television masts on a ridge overlooking the town. These we learned were the source of a new kind of lightning, which strikes upwards from the ground. We saw it happening and, just in case we'd lost sight of the basic principle around which the programme is constructed, Hammond explained again that technology had shown us something that would normally be invisible.
Then – this being Richard Hammond – he blew some things up, applying the high-speed camera to a quarry blast and a boyishly gratuitous explosion in the New Mexico desert. Very pretty it was too – to see the blast wave from the explosion bending the air into a lens – though I could have done without Hammond's footnote pointing out that only extreme slow motion made the effect perceivable.
After that it was a string of wonders – a bumblebee flying like an incompetent helicopter pilot on his first solo, rain-drops inflating themselves and exploding, bats fingering their way through the air – all of them maddeningly accompanied by yet another redundant explanation. You saw the flesh on a swimmer's legs rippling like a banner in the breeze ("Slowed down 40 times we can suddenly see things invisible to the naked eye"), you saw a milk droplet bouncing back into the air from the trampoline of surface tension ("Normally this is too fast to see") and you watched what Hammond claimed to be the fastest thing on the planet – pilobolus spores being cannoned out from fungi growing on horse dung. ("High-speed cameras have helped us see beyond the limits of our eyes", he added helpfully).
Apparently, pilobolus spores have to accelerate so fast (0 to 20mph in two millionth of a second) because they need to ensure that they land beyond the "zone of repugnance" around a freshly laid horse puck. Faced with a programme that contained beautiful and fascinating sights and yet still somehow succeeded in making you check your watch every five minutes, I found this concept more than usually pertinent. The television schedules are full of "zones of repugnance" and I've just discovered another one.
Fat Man in a White Hat followed the writer Bill Buford's attempts to get to grips with French cuisine, which involved him moving his entire family to Lyon (or Lee-own, as he kept on calling it) and enrolling in a kitchen brigade. Well, half doing that anyway, since the first episode of the series proved to be an odd and slightly unsatisfactory hybrid of immersion learning and gastronomic tourism.
Buford certainly doesn't lack flavour as a presenter. He has the weird, intense delivery of a country-and-western hobo and a taste for florid verbal crescendi, delivering passionate little arpeggios about Lyonnais food markets or French cuisine, never knowingly underemphasised and never using one word when seven are available. Brillat-Savarin's book The Physiology of Taste, for example, was described as "the most challenging, testing, exciting, animating, confusing, INSPIRING! book on food ever written".
Curiously, he got positively tongue-tied when he met his hero Paul Bocuse, one of France's most celebrated chefs and founder of the Bocuse d'Or, a kind of top-level MasterChef, which combines football chants with haute cuisine, though he wasn't so starstruck that he wasn't able to point out the almost deranged solipsism of the restaurant décor, which includes a mechanical barrel organ complete with a little wooden Bocuse figure beating time.
If you were a Michelin inspector reviewing this dish, I think you'd say that the ingredients were all of high quality and the technique accomplished but that it wasn't entirely clear what the central ingredient was and the balance was a little off. Definitely worth checking the next episode, though, in which Buford gets to grips with peasant cooking. The pig slaughter should provoke him into something spectacular.
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