Last Night's TV - Inside Nature's Giants, Channel 4; Shameless, Channel 4
Desert dissection's worth a closer look
Kipling suggested that the camel got its hump as an onomatopoeic punishment for saying "humph" once too often (a kind of Bactrian equivalent of a grunted "whatever" when it was asked to help out). The proverbial wisdom, on the other hand, has it that it is a horse designed by a committee, the implication being that consensus wasn't easy to arrive at. You won't be surprised to learn that Richard Dawkins doesn't have much time for either explanation, and he isn't very keen on the word "designed" either, a once relatively neutral term that has now been contaminated by the oxymoronic concept of intelligent design. Instead, he would prefer us to view the camel as a triumph of Darwinian evolution, and to that end he popped up now and then in Inside Nature's Giants to hymn the camel's uniquely specialised anatomy.
If you've never seen it before the "inside" in the title isn't just metaphorical. The pitch for this post-mortem approach to the natural history film is simple. Find a big dead animal and take it apart to see what makes it tick. In the case of last night's programme, the first bit was relatively easy since camels, an introduced species in Australia, have taken to the outback so successfully that they now have to be regularly culled to protect indigenous animals. So after one had been dispatched with a head-shot, the crew rushed in to disassemble it.
It's usually a fairly stomach-turning affair, figuratively and literally. A camel's hump, for instance – effectively a rucksack of energy-supplying fat – looks a lot better from the outside than it does from the inside. But the programmes also invariably include a moment when everyone has to get up to their armpits in intestines, and haul everything into the open. "I think we should de-gas it," somebody said here, as several hundred pounds of camel viscera cooked gently in desert heat. There was a gentle hiss as the knife went in and a startled mutter as nostril met vapour. The hump, incidentally, has absolutely nothing to do with water, the camel's endurance having more to do with clever water retention than an inbuilt storage bowser.
The camel is beautifully adapted to cope with heat in other ways too. A protuberant callous on its chest (called the pedestal) lifts its body clear of the ground when it's kneeling down, so that cooling air flow can get in and around the body and it has an air-conditioning structure in its nose specifically designed to cool the blood entering the brain. Like the computer centre in a large building, this has to be kept at a stable temperature while the rest of the body can be allowed to fluctuate. By the end of the dissection – conducted under a blazing outback sun – it was getting harder to see specific details, thanks to another triumph of Darwinian adaptation, the blowfly, but what you had seen had been fascinating.
Shameless is back and – I read somewhere – approaching its 100th episode. I hadn't watched for quite a while, having tired of its slightly callow celebration of amorality, and at first glance it looked in good spirits, as jubilant about misrule and fecklessness as it was in the first series. After a while, though, the misbehaviour began to seem a little strained again. And in the aftermath of the riots, you can't help wondering just a little bit about its approving relish for social delinquency. I know that's what's supposed to be on offer here – a tantalising glimpse of the happy bacchanal that lies just on the other side of the door marked Conscience. But even so it can grate. Last night's jolly escapades included the sale of ex-IRA guns to local gangsters ("See you love... take care," said Mimi cheerily, as a customer walks away with an AK47), disability-benefit fraud, murder, the near-rape of two strippers by a boozed-up stag party (only averted when the lairiest of the stags is shot in the leg), and, the cherry on top, two gangsters threatening a child until he weeps with fear. Pervasive throughout, and effectively endorsed by the narrative, is the idea that any contact with the police is "grassing". What's more, kindly sentiment is almost as rare as a sense of civic duty. Characters occasionally clamp together in desperate congress, but a far more typical exchange would be Frank's groggy riposte to his ex-wife's mother: "You lying, twisted, piss-stained old fraud." There's a difference between a fiction about people who never think about consequences and a fiction that pretends those consequences don't exist, and I wonder whether Shameless hasn't crossed over to the lesser of the two.
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