Last Night's Viewing: Snow Babies, BBC1 The Christmas No 1 Story, BBC2


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The Independent Culture

'Twas the week before Christmas, when all through the television's schedules, not a half-decent programme was stirring, not even a documentary about a mouse. Actually, there was a half-decent documentary about baby penguins, polar bears and other fledgling creatures of the Earth's colder climes. Snow Babies was about youngsters learning to hunt and generally toughen up before the onset of Arctic and Antarctic winters. The 18 years (and more) in which humankind takes to launch its young seem ludicrously indulgent in comparison, although admittedly juvenile caribou don't have to worry about finding a deposit on a flat.

Caribous' concerns are more immediate, eagles and wolves and what not, although this was family-friendly wildlife fare with a minimum of nature red in tooth and claw, killing being filmed at a discreet distance. Perhaps the most shocking – or, at least, unexpected – sequence featured young guillemots making their maiden flights from the cliffs into the sea, encouraged from behind by their squawking mothers, like pushy parents at a school sports day. One unfortunate bird didn't reach the water and was immediately snaffled by an Arctic fox and buried in its store cupboard – forward planning being another important life lesson hereabouts.

It's easy to stray into anthropomorphism with this sort of stuff, and a sequence featuring the 80km trek made by female penguins, in which "mum" pushed off for a couple of months to find food, leaving "dad" in charge of the baby, finally returned to the observation that "Dad can finally go fishing". Or down the pub, you wouldn't have been entirely surprised to hear Caroline Quentin say.

Incidentally, my copy of the Radio Times named David Jason as supplying the voiceover, whereas my preview copy definitely contained Quentin, and she delivered her words in the exact same child-friendly tempo that she employs in the pre-school animation Humf, one of my daughter's former favourites. Attenboroughesque it wasn't. However, this was a BBC Bristol Natural History Unit production, and they seldom fail to deliver at least two or three memorable sequences – the stars here being the Japanese monkeys lounging in a volcanic hot tub. All that the scene lacked was scented candles.

"What is Mr Blobby? It's a question that has exercised some of the finest philosophical minds," said the Reverend Richard Coles, tongue in cheek, while putting his finger on a conundrum at the heart of The Christmas No 1 Story. How do you after all discern any deeper meaning in the nation's often perverse choice of top-selling Christmas single?

The fact that anyone was looking for meaning in the first place was encouraging, and the well-chosen contributors, including Roger McGough, Edith Bowman and Pete Waterman, elevated this documentary above the mere nostalgia trip, while the aural waterboarding that are Slade and Wizzard's over-played contributions to the oeuvre was over mercifully quickly. "Well, Christmas is very glam rock," commented Coles.

McGough, it was argued, introduced the novelty single with The Scaffold's 1968 chart-topper "Lily the Pink", ending a half a decade of Beatles dominance, or as McGough observed of the Fab Four, "they were bound to be number one every other month… it just so happened Christmas got in the way." From the glam era onwards, however, campaigns for the top spot were conducted with a cynicism that has culminated in the dominance of TV talent show winners over the past 10 years. "It's all my fault… I killed the Christmas single," said a rueful Waterman, whose Popstars: The Rivals started the process when winners Girls Alive topped the charts in 2002. Scanning the list of earlier winners – from Benny Hill and Bob the Builder to Cliff Richard, Rolf Harris and Jimmy Osmond – I don't think history is going to judge him too harshly.