Last Night's Television - Coming Up, Channel 4; No Holds Bard, BBC4; Lost Land of the Volcano, BBC1

Eruptions of joy
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The Independent Culture

“That is the biggest stick insect I have ever seen in the world,” said Dr George, examining a creature that a less experienced entomologist would probably have identified as a log with legs. Quite how Dr George knew that this was a really big version of something he’d seen before rather than an average-sized version of something he hadn’t wasn’t fully explained in Lost Land of the Volcano, and it was a conundrum that came up again later, as the expedition’s various specialists announced that they'd added yet another new species to their growing trophy list. The frog freak was thrilled to expand the index of any respectable frog-spotting book with two or three novel entries while the woman who was bats about bats havered excitedly about a specimen whose wing was bent in a marginally different way to all those previously recorded in the bent-wing bat literature.

But how exactly do they know that they’re not elevating a trivial difference into a scientific one? That very tiny differences can be highly significant was made clear later, after Gordon, the cameraman, had gone for a midnight stroll in the jungle looking for bitey things (the informal taxonomic grouping to which an alarming number of these creatures seemed to belong). Gordon found a snake and wanted to know whether it was safe to grab hold of it, a fact that could only be confidently established by first grabbing hold of it.“ He’s striking quite vigorously,” noted Steve, the snake specialist, as he tried to get it to sit still for the identification parade. “Where’s the head?”

Given that the tail was wrapped around Steve’s calf, this question had a certain urgency, but fortunately the snake turned out to be relatively harmless, having a couple of extra scales between its eye and its nostril. You might not learn much about the niceties of biological classification from Lost Land of the Volcano but it does thrillingly restore the sense that there are still bits of the world that don’t yet have visitor-interpretation centres and pushchair friendly paths. And that there are still genuine discoveries to be made: “If the forests go,” George said pointedly about the New Guinea wilderness inwhich they were working, “we will lose the majority of species on Earth without even knowing they were there.” He seemed confident that itemising the biological richness of this eco-system would persuade local governments and local businesses to protect it, rather than making them feel they’ve got species to spare. One can only hope that Steve – a kind of human Action Man who completes the trio of central characters around which the programme is built – does not discover any valuable minerals in the giant cave system that he’s exploring on a nearby island.

The cave can only be accessed, incidentally, through an entrance half-way up a looming cliff that also has a vast torrent of water pouring out of it, which may explain the fact that it hasn’t yet been fully mapped. Back in base camp, meanwhile, George was blissfully engaging in a threesome with two amorous longhorn beetles, who were clambering over his face while copulating. He took no active part in their congress but from the expression on his face was clearly experiencing some species of rapture.

No Holds Bard, a spoof documentary about a Burns recitation competition, had its work cut out to take away the taste of that title, but managed it in the end, being full of good glancing jokes. Denis Lawson plays Miekel McMiekel, president of the Dumfries Burns Society and a man determined to hold on to the cup for the seventh year running, despite the fact that their star performer Struan is in the middle of a messy break-up from his wife and can barely get through a single line of “Ae Fond Kiss” without bursting into tears. The competition was provided by Hayley, a young girl tormented by her pushy mother (Ashley Jensen), Paula, an English incomer stubbornly blind to the violent anti-English feeling of her neighbours, and Stevie, a prisoner from a local jail who has been encouraged to enter by his naively trusting literacy teacher.

It got a bit farcically over-excited towards the end – as if the plot actually mattered – but you could forgive it a lot for the invention of the Timorous Beastie Boys, three spotty adolescents who rapped their way through a “street” version of “Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn”.

Channel 4’s Coming Up series, which offers airtime to new talent and young directors, kicked off with Pornography a shortened version of a Simon Stephens’s play, which originally wove together seven different plot-lines into an oblique commentary on the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London. This film concentrated on one section only – an incestuous encounter between a brother and a sister – and it suffered a little from the fact that, while a collection of shards can make a mosaic, only one shard looks like a bit of broken pot. But even as a fragment it had sharp edges and vivid colour, enough tomake you hanker for the whole.

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