Last Night's TV: How Science Changed Our World/BBC1
Being Ronnie Corbett/BBC2
Christmas with Gordon/Channel 4
Friday 24 December 2010
As claims to fame go, it's not a bad one: Wilhelmina, pet rabbit of Professor Robert Winston, was one of the first living beings to be photographed by MRA scan. Winston had been down the pub with some friends who had, he explained, rushed in bearing news of a machine they'd built. An old TV, a few bits of wire, and there you have it: one of the first MRA scanners in the history of the universe. Understandably, they wanted to try it out right away. And so off they went to collect Winston and his rabbit.
The good news was that it worked. Unfortunately, Wilhelmina's owner didn't realise the significance. "I didn't have the sense to see that this was going to be quite revolutionary," he said last night in How Science Changed Our World, holding up the blurry, barely discernable picture of his rabbit. But then, who would have? These days, the scanners take rather better pictures. In one intriguing experiment, Winston was able to guess a person's physical description based on a scan of his brain. He had asked the volunteer to think of tennis every time he or she wanted to communicate "yes", before throwing a series of questions at them along the lines of "Are you over six-feet tall?" and "Do you have a beard?" Every time the answer was yes, the movement part of the brain would light up. Before long, Winston and his team had a pretty accurate idea of who they were dealing with: shortish, male, facial hair included.
The MRA scan is, argued Winston last night, one of the top 10 inventions of the past 50 years. Also on the list: the electric torch (or laser technology), the contraceptive pill, the microchip, genome theory, stem-cell research, IVF and the world wide web. Viewers can vote for their favourite on the BBC's website, though Winston already had his – research on the Big Bang – and I think I've got mine, too. Obviously, the internet's pretty important and all, and we'd be nowhere without the microchip, but for sheer amazement value, I'd have to go for biomechanics. Not only does this – as we saw last night – enable the limbless to walk with astonishing deftness, but it can be deployed to tinker with our brains, too. Dianne Higher, for instance, had depression for much of her life, attempting suicide three times. Thanks to biomechanics, surgeons have been able to cut open her brain, wake her up, poke an electrode around eight centimetres inside, and make her happy again. She looked bedazzled. As well she might.
I met Ronnie Corbett once. It was during my time as a gossip columnist on this paper. I spotted him at a party and, somewhat starstruck, decided to approach and introduce myself. He was all right, I suppose, though not terribly polite. He didn't, he sniffed, read The Independent. More of a Telegraph man (must be the jokes). Anyway, he's 80 now, and BBC2 has devoted a few hours of scheduling to the occasion. First up was a rerun of The Two Ronnies Christmas Special from 1984, and then Being Ronnie Corbett, a fawning programme of dedications. We got Matt Lucas and David Walliams, Catherine Tate and Michael Palin, Miranda Hart, Rob Brydon, Stephen Merchant, and Bill Bailey. Even Bruce Forsyth put in an appearance. They all heaped praise on him, and deservedly so. After all, it wasn't them he was rude to at a party, was it? And he's jolly funny, or used to be, back in the day. Repeated clips of The Frost Report and The Two Ronnies were testimony to that. His more recent stuff, less so. That Extras sketch is great, of course – "a bit of whiz, you know? To blow away the cobwebs" – but, really, Ronnie, Little Britain? "I was just grateful to be included," was his explanation. And, to be honest, I believe him. This is a man whose raison d'être has been making people laugh; of course, he wants to keep up with the times. Why else would he agree to cuddle a half-naked Lucas in the least funny show on television?
Gosh, Gordon Ramsay's excited for Christmas. He always has a sort of frenetic energy about him anyway, and last night he was positively Tiggerish, hopping on the spot in his plush family kitchen, tossing fillets of salmon in his hands, talking away at the rate of knots. He's not the sort of chef you imagine giving instruction in Christmas food – he's too restauranty, at his best in Kitchen Nightmares or whatever competitive thing he's got on at the moment. The home-making is better left to Jamie or Nigella or Hugh or whoever; indeed, last night's opening sequence, which showed Ramsay smashing a Christmas bauble by throwing a knife at it, only seemed to hammer this home.
Still, the food was nice. Or nice-looking. We got the "best winter soup ever" – roast pumpkin, served with mushrooms and shavings of parmesan – and a honey-glazed ham. We got beef wellington with a chestnut stuffing and a salmon niçoise and panna cotta with a berry glaze and chocolate sprinkles. And we got Ramsay's daughters, rather awkwardly worked in, complete with forced parental jokes about the dangers of meeting boys. How old are they? They look about seven. Come on, Gordon, you've got a bit more time there.
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