Last Night's TV - The Bear Family and Me, BBC2; Above Suspicion: Deadly Intent, ITV1; The Lakes, ITV1
Close encounters of the furred kind
Tuesday 04 January 2011
The resounding message of Werner Herzog's Grizzly Man was that fraternising with wild bears will end in tears. "I believe the common character of the universe is not harmony," Herzog' s German-accented voiceover ran, over some lingering footage of a rotting animal carcass, "... but chaos, hostility, unt murder." Gordon Buchanan doesn't appear to have seen Herzog's documentary, in which bear-loving Timothy Treadwell was killed and mutilated by one of his furry chums. For
The Bear Family and Me, Buchanan chose to spend a year in the wilderness of northern Minnesota with a group of black bears – smaller than grizzlies, but perfectly capable of giving an overfamiliar cameraperson a concussion with a clip round the ear. "When you look into a bear's eyes," the curly-haired Scot mused, "they've got a mad look about them." You could say the same of him. Buchanan's first clammy-palmed encounter with a bear, as he followed it into the woods alone with nothing but a beeping radio transmitter to discern its whereabouts, made for genuinely tense television.
Buchanan was aided in his quest by local bear biologist Dr Lynn Rogers, who introduced him to his favourite female, Lily, and her cute young cub, Hope. Rogers' methods are unconventional: he wanders calmly up to the formidable creatures and feeds them grapes to earn their trust. Eventually, he anticipates, they'll become so accustomed to his presence as to ignore him, thus allowing him to observe their authentic natural behaviour. (Won't they also, I wondered, become accustomed to the free grapes?)
During the course of filming, Buchanan was nipped gently in the thigh by Lily, but it was Rogers' scientific principles that really came back to bite him. The bear and her child became separated, and the scientist found the starving cub, which presented him with a dilemma: allow nature to take its course, or intervene to reunite his research subjects? Even Springwatch lets its ducklings die. But given that Rogers' assistant was blubbing, and that he'd sentimentally christened the cub "Hope" in the first place, what do you think he did?
As the teaser for tonight's second episode made clear, however, there's every chance that Hope may yet die anyway, a turn of events that would be truly Herzogian in its symbolism. As the wistful acoustic soundtrack started up, I could think only of the great Bavarian director's chilling words: "Chaos, hostility, unt murder"...
These, conveniently, were also the themes of ITV1's 9pm offering. Lynda La Plante's Prime Suspect rose above its generic title to become a televisual classic. Her latest creation, Above Suspicion: Deadly Intent, is unlikely to live long enough in the mind to transcend its two generic titles. La Plante might just as well have called it "Under Suspicion: Sudden Death", or "Crime Drama: Some Coppers Investigate Some Murders". It does, at least, feature Kelly Reilly and Ciaran Hinds as its chief investigating officers, both of whom have the chops to deliver their equally generic lines with almost enough conviction to be plausible.
The preposterous genre clichés piled up faster than the bodies: a bent ex-cop; a man who alters his identity with cosmetic surgery, then ungratefully knocks off the surgeon; an autistic savant with a head for numbers. The new drug I assumed La Plante and co had invented as their MacGuffin – fentanyl – actually exists (I looked it up) and is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Nevertheless, I'd stopped paying much attention to the plot by the end of the hour, once I realised I'd have to tune in to two more episodes to find out who the man with the new face might be, and whether the autistic chap can count matchsticks as quickly as Dustin Hoffman.
Rory McGrath has undergone a transformation (not, I must warn you, a cosmetic one) from professionally sarcastic panel show contestant to professionally earnest chronicler of provincial quirk. Remarkably, the first series of The Lakes, his show about a summer in the life of some charming Cumbrian eccentrics, seems to have passed me by. It must have done rather well, or else been generously funded by the British Tourist Authority, because the opening episode of the second series – back by popular demand! – was filled with expensive helicopter shots of the region's scenery.
I tend to distrust the notion, perpetuated here by McGrath, that country folk are somehow innately friendlier than city-dwellers. But sailing enthusiast Joe and his sailing enthusiast fiancée, Lindy, did seem jolly pleasant, as did Rob the micropig farmer, and marathon-running, Channel-swimming Thomas "Gladiator" Noblett, who was born with his feet the wrong way round.
Joe and Lindy's wedding plans were, naturally, sailing-themed, with the groom arriving by boat for the ceremony at Ullswater's Inn on the Lake. What went strangely unmentioned, however, was that the same hotel was once the setting for another television show called The Lakes: Jimmy McGovern's 1990s melodrama, filmed at Ullswater, boasted infidelity, gang rape and the drowning of three schoolgirls among its plotlines. The grittiest bit of drama in McGrath's version was weather-based: would the sun shine on Joe and Lindy's big day? Do bears shit in the woods?
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