Last Night's TV: The Elephant: Life after Death/Channel 4
Romancing the Stone: the Golden Age of British Sculpture/BBC4

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.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor