Last Night's Television - Wilderness Explored, BBC4; The Restaurant, BBC2

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The Independent Culture

If you have a taste for emblems of hubristic European folly, then I think you'll like Charles Sturt, an early Australian explorer who managed to convince himself that the continent contained a vast inland sea. In this, Sturt wasn't wildly out of step with his contemporaries, many of whom reasoned that the country was just too big not to have some major rivers running through it. Sturt, though, approached the matter with calm scientific reason, charting the migratory headings of native birds and concluding that where their flight paths intersected, somewhere out in the white space on the map, lay an avian paradise of water and greenery. So convinced was he that he would find a lake out there that he took a whale boat with him on his expedition, painting it as he went so that it would be in perfect condition for its eventual launch. What he found instead, in mockery of his hopes, were the waterless waves of the Gibson Desert, rolling breakers of sand as far as the eye could see.

Wilderness Explored, a kind of cultural history of geographical ignorance, was partly about the effect of such disappointments on Australia's sense of itself. It remains, for all its celebration of the great outdoors, a remarkably urbanised country. Four out of every five Australians live within 30 miles of the coast in a relatively densely populated strip, and for the first non-Aboriginal Australians, the interior was simply an enigmatic void that was remarkably good at killing those who tried to penetrate it. Why the non-Aboriginal Australians didn't just ask the original inhabitants what was in the middle I'm not sure, though the continent is so vast that it's possible that the tribes that lived near the coast didn't know either. It looked magnificent in Wilderness Explored, anyway: huge expanses of land ruched into ochre ruffles, or rocky ridge lines stretching to the horizon, like the pleats on a giant tablecloth.

The problem was that the early settlers couldn't see its beauty or abundance. Burke and Wills, the hero-martyrs of early Australian exploration, died of starvation at Cooper's Creek, an area that is like a 24-hour Tesco hypermarket for the Aboriginal people who live in the area. Indeed, Burke and Wills actually shot at some of the locals who were attempting to bring them fish. They died, you might argue, out of cultural stubbornness. This was, after all, the Dead Centre, devoid of any European idea of fecundity or fruitfulness. So dying was the proper thing to do if you'd run out of bully beef. Such deaths, and the baleful accounts of survivors who only just made it back, created what one contributor described as "necro-nationalism".

Australians only learnt to love their heartland much later, after a naturalist called H H Finlayson published a book called The Red Centre and an Aboriginal artist called Albert Namatjira borrowed European watercolour technique to record the overlooked beauty of the interior. Suddenly it wasn't dead and hostile at all, but a cliché of Fifties interior design, and Red Centre tourism started to boom, ironically bringing quite novel forms of misunderstanding as native Australians found their most sacred sites being clambered over by people with box Brownies.

I'd like to ask you to spare a thought for the bystanders of reality television this week, by which I mean the people who didn't sign up for a centre-stage role but get caught by the camera playing walk-on roles. I'm thinking in particular of the poor woman who features in the credits to the current run of The Restaurant, caught in a wildly unflattering moment with something stalky poking out of her mouth. She looks like a goat eating a thistle and must be absolutely longing for this unexpected public prominence to fade away. On the other hand, some of the victims deserve everything they get. Last week, a breathtakingly odious customer reduced Lindsie to tears and was rewarded by having his bullying vulgarity broadcast to the nation.

The chefs themselves, meanwhile, continue to pluck disaster from the jaws of triumph with remarkable consistency. Asked to put on a public cookery demonstration that would lure new customers to their restaurants, Alasdair and James declined to let the audience taste the finished dishes, and Michele and Russell forgot to bring the raw ingredients. The others did better, but stumbled when it came to getting food in front of Raymond Blanc himself, with Tim tragically cocking up the preparation of a boiled egg. Alasdair, who tends to panic if an aircraft passes overhead, ended up in hospital with chest pains, and Michelle, who runs a restaurant called the Cheerful Soul, burst into tears after a mild bit of criticism. The nice thing about The Restaurant is that it isn't cruel, but sometimes there's not much that Blanc can do about the fact that life is.

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