Last Night's TV: He got his head stuck in the clouds
Bear Grylls: Mission Everest, Channel 4; The Frost Report Is Back! BBC4
Tuesday 25 March 2008
Ever since old Daedalus and his impulsive lad Icarus took to the skies over mythological Greece, man has undertaken some really daft airborne adventures. In Bear Grylls: Mission Everest we watched the latest, an attempt to climb higher than the summit of Everest in a paramotor, which is a kind of engine-powered handglider. The record altitude ever achieved in one of these contraptions was previously 20,019ft; Everest is 29,035ft. Moreover, paramotors are not supposed to enjoy wind of more than 20mph; it's a bit breezier on the roof of the Himalayas, where gusts have been measured at 175mph.
Thus was the stage set for a documentary longer than many feature films, which I think we were intended to watch with our hearts in our mouths, as two frightfully well-spoken man-children called Bear Grylls and Gilo Cardozo (their very names were enough to make you yearn for simpler times, when adventurers were called Lewis and Clark, or Mason and Dixon) were stymied by countless mechanical failures and unsympathetic weather patterns, before finally taking off wearing 168lbs of equipment. This was the equivalent, we were told, of carrying a super-middleweight boxer, a piece of information almost completely useless, except for those of us who've had Joe Calzaghe strapped to our backs.
Now, call me a chippy northern grammar school boy if you like, but I found it hard to see all this as much more than a pair of Hooray Henrys with too much breeding and not enough sense contriving a challenge that might have been kindled on the playing fields of Eton. I'm all for people pushing themselves – I have myself attempted to flip a dozen beer-mats in one go and damn near succeeded – and I know that Britain owes its rich heritage of adventure largely to trust-funded ex-public schoolboys who don't need to worry about paying the mortgage while they're trudging alone across the Kalahari or flying solo over the poles or whatever, but Mission Everest didn't really seem fuelled by the spirit of Shackleton or even Ellen MacArthur.
This rather ungenerous view was encouraged by my wife – a chippy northern comprehensive schoolgirl – who kept coming into the room as the narrator solemnly informed us of yet another seemingly intractable problem for Bear and Gilo and ventured that she couldn't get excited about a mission in which two men sought to paramotor higher than Everest for their own satisfaction. Of course, it didn't help that we knew nothing about paramotoring before the programme started. Climbing, sailing or even holding-your-breath records at least chime with Joe Public, but who gives tuppence about motorised handgliders?
Compounding all this was the name of our hero: Bear. It really is no name for a grown-up, especially a grown-up of the rugged, intrepid variety. In fact, I'm only slightly ashamed to say that in our house we got the giggles, especially when the narrator referred to "adventurer Bear". From then on it was all we could do not to see the whole enterprise as a series of books for toddlers: he went from sleepy Bear to tearful Bear to happy Bear, although in the end his altimeter failed and so nobody knows whether he got higher than Everest or not. Meanwhile, even his wife wondered whether his lifestyle was altogether fitting for a married man with two young children. Silly Old Bear.
Whether or not class sensibilities informed my response to Bear Grylls: Mission Everest, it is always good to see the celebrated sketch featuring John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett – "I look up to him because he is upper class, but I look down on him because he is lower-class" – and inevitably, as the most familiar and enduring sequence from the 1960s sketch series The Frost Report, it kicked off The Frost Report Is Back!
This was a frankly interminable celebration presented by Sir David Frost himself, in which original contributors recalled how much they owed him, or were prompted by him into recalling how much they owed him. I should add that I have met Frost and liked him, so it is mean of me to poke even gentle fun at the great man's ego. I spent a morning on the set of one of his interviews for al-Jazeera, and what struck me before the show was how ancient he looked. His eyes seemed lifeless, he seemed unable to lift his chin off his chest, but when the director started counting down to transmission, the effect was as though a huge spark had electrified him. The eyes flashed, the head jerked upwards; the television camera seemed literally to breathe life back into him.
What The Frost Report Is Back! conveyed most powerfully of all, as so often when television gets reverential about its former self, was how much Britain has changed. Also, satire does not age well. Scarcely any of the sketches shown last night would make it on to a comedy show now, but that is not to say that we are the better for it. Perhaps the opposite applies.
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