Last Night's TV: Slick moves among the oily characters

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The Independent Culture

If you've watched any polemical thrillers at all, you'll know that they generally keep at least one wide-eyed innocent to hand, so that the sort of information that would go without saying for the main protagonists actually can get said aloud at some point. The ignorance of this character is a proxy for ours, a representative cluelessness that allows us to be told what we need to know.

No surprise then to find that Simon Beaufoy's new two-part ecological thriller, Burn Up, contains just such a character, a sweetly unworldly figure who discovers that the oil business can be a lethally cynical affair and that powerful forces wish to prevent anyone from learning the full scale of the global-warming crisis. What is a bit surprising is that the useful idiot should be the man who has just been appointed as CEO of an oil company with profits of $13bn a year. "If you don't mind, I'm going to dig up some dirt on this Inuit chick and get it in the papers,", said the company PR man, as he discussed a troublesome protester. "You would do that?" replied Tom McConnell in appalled tones. God knows what's on his CV, but it sounds as if he's been headhunted from a top-level post helping nursery-school children do finger-painting.

Tom McConnell's implausible naivety isn't the only problem in Beaufoy's drama, which contains nearly as many logical holes as it does good intentions. And the first hole was upon us almost before we'd begun. In the Saudi Arabian desert, a geological survey team was at work. One of their number wandered off to the latrine, thus escaping an attack by hired mercenaries that left all of his colleagues dead. But why exactly did the survivor download all his critical data on to a portable hard drive before taking his toilet break? A crossword will do it for most of us. Why, more to the point, didn't he immediately make multiple copies of the McGuffin files or just email it to the person who needed to see it. Never mind, because back in London Tom McConnell was enjoying the fruits of his new position – a luxury car given to him by a grateful oil sheikh – and learning, from his friend Mack, that there is always a quid for the quo. Would he mind terribly if the Americans used one of the company airfields for a CIA kidnap flight?

Mack, played by Bradley Whitford, is the villain of the piece, a born-again oil man so sulphurously indifferent to global warming that he welcomes the melting of the Arctic ice-cap because it will open up more profitable shipping routes for the company's oil tankers. Mack sneers at anyone worried about greenhouse gases ("Prime Minister hasn't been watching Inconvenient Poop, has he?") and does all in his power to prevent awkward facts from getting in the way of carbon-burning capitalism. "Doubt is our product," he told his team as they prepared for a Congressional hearing into global warming, "the manufacture of doubt, never forget that."

Ranged against him are Holly, Arrow Oil's renewables enthusiast, Mika, an Inuit activist who somewhat perversely protested against rising carbon-dioxide emissions by dousing herself in gasoline and striking a match, and Tom himself, shocked by this incident into visiting the Arctic to see for himself. While there, he discovered how grave the crisis is and does some exploratory drilling into Holly. By the end of episode one, he'd decided to sell the company's nasty, polluting tar-sands deposits and plough all the money into solar panels, explaining to his startled board that China had already produced its first solar-energy billionaire. I checked the last fact on the internet and Tom's right. There really is such a man, which made me think some kind of onscreen caption ("This Bit Is True") might have been useful in a drama that was, to its credit, trying to educate its audience as well as entertain them. No caption would have been necessary for the bits that didn't match up to the real world. They were, unfortunately, glaringly obvious.

I don't think the Top Gear team will much care for Burn Up, since the programme now takes on a hysterical air of fury whenever the issue of global warming comes up. Last night, in the repeat of Sunday's programme, they were excoriating Hilary Benn for noting that the rise in fuel prices might help to discourage consumption, and Jeremy Clarkson elaborated a theory that would have had Mack whooping like a Texas oilman. "This is from chapter one in the left-wing-dictatorship handbook," said Clarkson. "Stalin. First thing he did is limit movement... Second thing, ID cards, know what I'm saying... Third thing is curfews... Redruth in Cornwall this week... You mark my words... We just proved Gordon Brown is Stalin." The loyal petrolhead storm troopers cheered wildly and then settled back happily to watch Clarkson mashing a bluebell patch to pulp with a new 4x4. They're not going down without a fight.