Olympic Opening Ceremony, BBC1
The Genius of Charles Darwin, Channel 4
Travellers' Century, BBC4
The opening of the 2008 Beijing Olympics offered a dazzling display of synchronicity, but the BBC's commentary kept us grounded
Sunday 10 August 2008
Confronted with 2,008 drummers beating a holy tattoo of light and sound, Huw Edwards knew he had to come up with something. He hadn't been sent to the Beijing Olympic Opening Ceremony just to look sweaty. As the drummers formed a staggering numerical display – like the LED train timetables at Euston, but made entirely of people – Edwards reached deep into the bran-tub of his brain. "That," he said, "was quite something."
Live commentary is a tough game, and over the course of the ceremony the BBC team found its stride, providing a good flow of translation, explanation and downright exultation at the alien beauty of it all – though there were a few goofs to cherish. The opening moments of the games – with fire fizzing round the rim of the stadium – was not the right time to ask former athletes to put the event in political context. (Come to think of it, is there ever a right time?)
And Sue Barker, why oh why? As a magical clock in computer generated imagery ticked off the seconds to the new Olympiad, did you really have to say: "Huw, this is a countdown Carol Vorderman would be more than impressed by."
Ah, cosy British parochialism, we clasp you like a comfort blanket in the face of the might of China's superlative opening ceremony. However will our Morris dancers compete? Even when arranged in the formation of a huge pork pie?
After the Olympic flame was lit with an aerial routine straight out of Raymond Briggs, but faster ("We're sprinting in the air") a BBC announcer cheerily told us that due to the length, breadth and scale of the Olympic opening ceremony, there was no time for the scheduled episode of Flog It. Britain suddenly felt like a very small country.
The Olympic Games gives us evolution in practice; Richard Dawkins supplies the theory. A public-service broadcasting bell seemed to ring at the beginning of The Genius of Charles Darwin as Mr Dawkins asked the class of 8pm on Channel 4 to settle down and pay attention. "I'm going to tell you about evolution," he said, emphasising every syllable of this strange new word.
Dawkins visited a school where most of the pupils looked at him pityingly and told him that, like, they believed in their own Holy Book? So, thanks for your theories but, like, no thanks? (These weren't even faith school students. They were at Park High Technology College. Maybe that's why they put the question marks on the end of their dogma?) None of this boded well for the programme. Just as You Are What You Eat is made for those who think fish fingers grow in fields, this looked dangerously as if it was going to aim at those who believe earthquakes are caused when the earth slips slightly on the back of the turtle.
But as it turned out, Dawkins pulled out an entrancing essay on evolution, keeping it simple and strong ("The race is survival. The finishing line is reproduction") with added anecdotal sweeteners. (Darwin was said to be so tone deaf he had to be nudged to stand to "God Save the Queen"). Dawkins's passion shone through gently, like light behind paper. Reverently, he showed us a mouldy, paralysed pigeon "from Darwin's own collection".
At nightfall on the plains of Kenya he delivered an extraordinary monologue on suffering. "In the minutes while I say these words, millions of animals are running in fear of their lives, whimpering in fear ... They are injured. Starving. Or feeling parasites rasping away from within. There is no central authority. There is no safety net." All the while, he was lit by sickly night-vision camera, a bit like the one at the end of The Silence of the Lambs. He knows how to ratchet up the rhetoric as well as any hellfire preacher.
Perhaps most riveting of all, though, was his meeting with a Nairobi prostitute who is biologically resistant to HIV. Evolution is so slow and our lives are so quick that it is usually invisible to us, but here she was: a marker of its glacial change, a glimpse of it in action.
Dawkins, you feel, is entirely without vanity. If only the same could be said of Benedict Allen, "gentleman explorer". He is the distractingly handsome presenter of Travellers' Century, a mini-series about three great travel writers, each instalment of which began with him resonantly intoning: "I'm Benedict Allen, and I've spent 25 years heading off alone through tundra, desert and forest ..." over shots of him looking rugged. Nevertheless, this has been an excellent series, doing its best to bring three great books to life. In last week's third and final instalment, Allen took a leisurely trail in the f`ootsteps of Patrick Leigh Fermor, before revealing a wonderful scoop at the end: an interview with the author himself, now 92, filmed at his home in Greece. Posterity will be grateful.
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