Last night's viewing - Dara O Briain's Science Club, BBC2; Heston's Fantastical Food, Channel 4
I don't know how I reached my advanced years without learning about Lazzaro Spallanzani's pioneering work in frog tailoring, but I'm grateful to Dara O Briain's Science Club for filling this regrettable gap in my knowledge. Apparently, Spallanzani made waxed taffeta trousers for frogs in the 18th century as part of an experiment to demonstrate that semen was an essential part of procreation.
Some frogs were allowed to go into action bareback, others were required to wear Spallanzani's full-groin condoms and the results were obvious – to us anyway, since we've benefited from his research. Quite why this captivating experiment wasn't a staple in Nuffield biology lessons I can't imagine, nor how the producers of Science Club resisted the temptation to illustrate it with a sprightly animation, either, since it's the kind of programme that's eager to add a top-spin of comedy to straightforward science facts.
This first episode concentrated on genetics – and elements of its own DNA seemed immediately obvious from the post-industrial studio setting and the on-set crowd. There's a hint of Top Gear in there, a dab of Radio 4's The Infinite Monkey Cage and a bit of Jools Holland's Later..., too, in the presentation of science as a kind of convivial club-night. Steve Jones – as close as you get to the genetic-science equivalent of a revered British bluesman – came in to jam with O Briain on the basics of DNA and genetic diversity, and Ed Byrne pitched up later to front a report on Neanderthal interbreeding with Homo sapiens and then do a bit of laddy banter with Dara. The crowd supplied guinea pigs for the occasional experiment as well as an insulating huddle of interested faces.
Does it work? Well, they're a lot easier to bear than the Top Gear crew and (for me anyway) the raw material is more interesting, too. But the determination to splice together informing with entertaining made for some odd moments. Alok Jha presented a report on whether the mapping of the human genome had actually delivered on the claims made for it 15 years ago – one of those slightly strained BBC attempts to frame minor differences of opinion as a ding-dong battle – and when we returned to the studio it was to the sound of whooping and applause from the studio audience. What were they supposed to be whooping? The disappointment of early hopes for medical cures? The fact that two scientists had appeared at odds over this breakthrough? Neither, I take it; it's just that whooping is one of the things a studio audiences is for.
Anyone interested in science might also feel that the ratio of jokes to hard fact could be tilted a little more in favour of the latter. After all, if you're not interested in science you'd be better off watching Michael McIntyre's Comedy Roadshow, whereas if you were interested in the latest research on the responsiveness of our epigenome (the programmable bit of our genetic inheritance, to put it crudely) you might well have resented the amount of time they wasted playing with the Meanderthal app, a smart-phone programme which converts any face into a stone-age low-brow. If you're not the impatient type, though, it did have its moments. Taffeta trousers, remember? On frogs.
"I'm challenging myself to make the world's biggest boiled egg," said Heston Blumenthal in Heston's Fantastical Food. Why, Heston? I can't see any good reason after watching the programme, except that Channel 4 thought that there might be some mileage in a Willy Wonka exercise in giganticism. Notionally it was supposed to restore a sense of childhood magic to the viewer, but as a series of unappetising looking mock-ups filled the screen (potatoes covered with tomato sauce to make giant baked beans?) I found it brought the disapproving adult out in me: "Stop playing with your food, Heston... there are children starving in Africa".
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