Last Night's TV: The Elephant: Life after Death/Channel 4
Romancing the Stone: the Golden Age of British Sculpture/BBC4
Thursday 17 February 2011
They're not exactly picky eaters, hyenas. If you want proof try to catch up with The Elephant: Life after Death, a novel kind of natural-history programme in which a group of biologists and film-makers laid on a free buffet for the scavengers and detritivores of Tsavo West National Park in Kenya. Staked out in a clearing, surrounded by more remote-control cameras than a sink-estate crime spot, was the corpse of a male elephant – six million calories of fat, meat and guts just waiting for anything bold enough to come and claim a chunk. The hyena was the first guest to show up, looming unnervingly out of the blackness with its headlamp eyes. Half-a-mile away, in a tented control room, the scientists sat in front of a bank of monitors giving a running commentary. Very tough, the skin of an elephant, they reminded us, as the hyena circled warily. Even a hyena's immensely powerful jaws will struggle. He's most likely to go for the softer parts. At which point – after one last quick check around for lions – the hyena took a little run-up and jammed his head up to the shoulder blades in the elephant's rectum. I'm glad to say that even the biologists momentarily lost their scientific detachment at this point. "Urggh!" they said as one, and they all said it again a little later when the hyena's enthusiastic tugging triggered a sudden explosion of intestinal gas.
It isn't very often you get a fresh angle on a subject as comprehensively filmed as African wildlife. And perhaps in this case "fresh" isn't really the appropriate word. After only a day or two a rotting elephant makes a pungently powerful advertisement for its own attractions. But Channel 4's film did offer an intriguing alternative to the familiar old narratives of hunting and fleeing, mating and cub-rearing, and it captured several sights that viewers won't have seen before, most of them a stomach-turning testimony to nature's lack of fastidiousness. The technology was pretty good, too. While the hyena was ramming its head up the back passage of the elephant, for example, a swarm of hippoboscid flies had their proboscises buried deep in the hyena's anus, and we were able to watch them at it, courtesy of some remarkably crisp infra-red night filming.
There were disappointments for the assembled experts. Against expectations the vultures never turned up, leaving Simon Thomsett, a vulture enthusiast distinctly crestfallen. A group of the birds hung about in the crests of some nearby trees like loitering yobbos, but never actually came down to feed. "They're a bunch of cowards, they really are," said Simon disgustedly, letting his disappointment get the better of him. On the other hand, Dino Martins – the resident entomologist – was in heaven. "It's like reaching into a pot of boiling stew," he said enthusiastically, as he cupped a double handful of seething maggots and told us about their remarkable efficiency as waste-disposal experts. The life cycle is so short that the first maggots hatched on the elephant will return as flies to lay their own eggs on the body before everything has gone. For quite a lot of animals the maggots themselves represent a bonanza of nutrition, but even those that didn't come to eat them didn't seem perturbed to find their evening meal rippling gently in front of them. Even at the very end – when the elephant was a putrefying soup of decay and the scientists visibly reeled as they got close – a civet turned up to have a little nibble. Incidentally – should you want a side order of gross-out to go with the hyena's memorable first bite – you might like to know that female hyenas have a kind of penis as well and, apparently, give birth through them.
In Romancing the Stone: the Golden Age of British Sculpture, Alastair Sooke tackled the Georgians and the Victorians, a period replete with great national geniuses that few of us will have heard about. John Flaxman, say, once a household word across Europe and thought worthy of a place on the Albert Memorial alongside Michelangelo and Bernini. Or Francis Chantrey, a bust-maker of genius who also carved the affecting memorial to the Robinson sisters in Lichfield Cathedral. Both of them have effectively been exiled to the basement corridors and attic storerooms of our cultural consciousness, because the main rooms are now filled up with modernism, and their branch of neo-classicism just looks very old fashioned and dusty. It would have been nice if Sooke could have made a slightly fiercer caser for their merits, along the lines of Howard Jacobson's thoughtful defence of Victorian erotic art a few months ago on Channel 4. But the appreciation here rarely amounted to anything much more complicated than saying "Isn't it amazingly realistic considering it's made out of stone?" Sooke is very assured on screen and generous with anecdotal curiosities, but you never quite lose the sense that he's delivering a descriptive inventory rather than an evolving argument about what sculpture can mean to a society. The one moment when the film really came alive was when he visited the wildly reactionary Scottish sculptor Alexander Stoddart, who makes art as if it was still 1835. "The statue tries to stand or sit like a pool of silence and calm in the middle of all the general karaoke," he said. Debatable, surely, and a debate that might have thrown light on the eclipse of Flaxman and Chantrey's reputation. Sadly, Sooke declined to have the fight.
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