Last night's viewing - Richard Hammond's Miracles of Nature, BBC1; Nick Nickleby, BBC1
"I'm scared. On an Olympic scale." Presenters tend to say this kind of thing a lot, of course, it rarely being a sin to amplify your emotions on screen. But it sounded pretty authentic when it occurred in Richard Hammond's Miracles of Nature, a popular-science series that explores the interaction of biological and human design.
It was Hammond who said it and he'd just stepped off the edge of a 500-foot cliff in South Africa, fervently hoping that the webbing that connected him to a paraglider and its pilot would hold. He didn't say he was scared when the pilot found a thermal and they were wrenched upwards as if they were on a fairground thrill ride, but he made a few non-verbal noises that suggested he wasn't feeling entirely at ease.
The rationale for the paraglide trip was to get close to Cape vultures, whose soaring abilities were notionally the inspiration for a submarine that "flies" beneath the water. That's the point here – that evolution has often already solved technological problems that we haven't quite mastered ourselves, and not just the obvious ones, like being able to fly under your own power. Not "miracles" at all then, unless you're using the word only to mean something that will make an 11-year-old go "Gosh!" And I found myself wondering a little about the directness of the connection in the first case. Yes, the submarine had "wings". And yes they were relatively short to give it a certain amount of manoeuvrability under the water. But both those features might have been arrived at with no reference to the Cape vulture at all.
Never mind, though, because the blind ingenuity of the evolutionary process in exploiting every available ecological niche was matched here by a certain skill in putting the details on screen, from a lovely opening piece to camera (delivered from an E-type Jag as a skein of greylag geese flapped lazily alongside, between Hammond and the camera car) to the elaborate stunt someone had devised to test the engineering that protects the woodpecker brain from an impact of 1200G every time its beak strikes timber (it's not only 11-year-old boys who are likely to go "Gosh!" during this programme). Packing an electric lightbulb into a simulated woodpecker skull, Hammond dispatched it into space under a helium balloon, the idea being to let it drop back to earth and recover it intact.
A bright 11-year-old will have noted that any height above what was needed to let it achieve terminal velocity was pure showboating. And the same precocious child might have pointed out that the method Hammond used to waterproof his mobile phone didn't appear to have any direct kinship with the hydrophobic rainforest butterfly that he claimed had inspired the technology he used. But never mind. Even if one might wish that BBC producers occasionally used a bigger hat when they pull out a name for a new project, for this kind of gee-whiz science Hammond is actually pretty good.
I'm not exactly sure who Nick Nickleby – a stripped daytime Dickens adaptation that for once hasn't had the set builders ransacking the warehouses for stick-on cobbles – is aimed at. It's certainly an experiment worth conducting, though, to see whether one of television's more dependable posthumous screenwriters will actually work in a more contemporary setting. The point, I take it, is to apply Dickens' social conscience to the scandals and workhouses of contemporary Britain. So the Yorkshire boy-farm of Dotheboys Hall has become Dotheolds Hall, a private care home that can boast Beacon of Excellence status but also the "lowest overheads in the industry and the highest profits". On the evidence so far, modern dress makes it a lot trickier to find the balance between grotesquerie and realism that is one of Dickens' strengths. But it's a brisk, bold treatment that deserves an audience.
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