Last Night's TV: Mixed notes from a small island

Paradise or Bust, BBC2; Messiah, BBC1
Click to follow

There are, as I see it, two paths to a happy life. The first is to maintain low expectations. As my old mum used to say, a miserable expression never cost anybody anything, on top of which your existence soon becomes a constant round of small, pleasant surprises. The second is to look for the silver lining, turn every challenge into an opportunity, and generally meet adversity with a smile, which is a lot more like hard work. Personally, I favour option A (while admitting that my pessimism is rarely radical enough to get me through an evening in front of the television), and this may help to explain why so far nobody has tried to turn my life into a reality series. Option B, the smiley, looks far better in front of a camera, as demonstrated by the first part of Paradise or Bust.

This series, which comes in five hour-long parts, follows a project to build a web-based eco-community on a small Pacific island. The idea is that by signing up on a website, and paying a modest fee (prices start at £120), you get a share in a tourist resort being built on Vorovoro, in Fiji. What sets this apart from an ordinary timeshare is the project's general green credentials and sensitivity to local culture, and the fact that shareholders – tribe members, as they're known – get to vote at regular intervals for a community leader, and have their say on policy issues (for example, whether to build composting toilets).

Clearly, a project like this is not calculated to attract the jaded, and the most enjoyable moments in the first episode came from observing youthful idealism running up against wrinkly, cynical old reality. The project was the brainchild of Mark Bowness, discouragingly described by the commentary an "unemployed Liverpudlian", who was subsequently joined by a posh boy called Ben Keene: one of many lacunae in the narrative is the lack of any detail about how Ben got involved, or what their relationship is. Their initial plan was to find 5,000 tribe members, but this target had to be abandoned when rumours began to appear on the web that the whole thing was a scam, and that Mark was a con artist. (The commentary stated that Mark was not a con man, but had been involved in online businesses that had failed, a disclaimer vague enough to make me wonder if there wasn't a more entertaining back story being tucked away behind the sofa.) And so, almost immediately, Ben, out on Vorovoro, was having to prepare for his first visitors with a budget that had been drastically revised downwards.

The fun really started at the airport, when Ben and Mark's first employee, a young actor called Becky, was warned off the whole idea by her father: he didn't think the project was properly organised or financed. Becky, clearly daunted, decided that the tribe were all "gorgeous, lovely people", who were "passionate" and "committed". She displayed the same attitude to practicalities later on when, having warned Ben against siting the island's composting toilets in a clearly unsuitable place, she worried that she was "throwing all the realistic rocks in the way of all these ideas and this fantastic nirvana that we're going to create... Boring, being like that all the time." No, far better to be interesting than competent. Another crisis had Ben rushing frantically around the local town, trying to find the whale's tooth that, by custom, he had to present to a landowner from whom he needed permission: "With the tooth," he explained, "is an envelope of money. But what's important is the symbol."

Such innocence, I thought: or, more likely, such wilful self-delusion. But by the end of the first episode, something approaching the original vision was indeed happening, and I don't suppose it would have if they hadn't been so deluded. So, a lesson there; but there are another four hours of this to go, and if it doesn't dig out something a little more engaging than deluded earnestness, it could all get terribly tedious.

If it's sin you're after, Messiah always coughs up. This is one of those cop franchises that has by now long outlived the rationale behind its title, as well as most of the original cast. Dour detective Ken Stott has been replaced by wiry, neurotic detective Marc Warren, and all that remains is another religiously themed set of serial killings, this time involving some fairly strained references to prophecies of the end times. The good news is that the series has toned down somewhat its taste for gorily bizarre methods of dispatch – plain old hangings and stabbings for the most part, if accompanied with quasi-biblical symbols. The bad news is that it is even less convincing: these are policemen with no interest in rules of evidence or building a case. When a murder was committed in a car park, for instance, they didn't bother checking the CCTV tapes, or at least not until it made for a dramatic reversal. And, in the end, irrationally, I can't help feeling that TV is too petty a medium for this many murders, this much blood: what will shock in the cinema seems just garish in the living room. Or maybe it's time I invested in widescreen.

Comments