The Weekend’s TV: Britain from above, Sun, BBC1 & BBC2;
Brits who made the modern world, Fri, FIVE
Fly guy knows just how the land lies
Monday 25 August 2008
Every so often during an episode of Britain from Above, Andrew Marr seemed compelled – either by sheer emotion or because it was in his contract – to tell you how important it is to take an aerial view of the nation. "If you really want to understand how this country works, then there's only one way to get the big picture: from above" or "It's only from above that we get some sense of the scale". I wish he hadn't done this. I like Marr best when he's understated, and the aerial stuff provided its own hyperbole. A lot of the series was spent, as it turned out, close to the ground. Last night, Marr went panning for gold in a Northern Irish stream and strolling along crumbling cliffs in Norfolk; one sequence even went deep underground, showing us a 3-D computer image of the mineral formations on which these islands are built: scarlet points of rock thrusting down into the crust, a flat grey blade for the fault beneath the Great Glen.
The programme, the final one in the series, was entitled "Untamed Britain" and looked at the natural structures of the UK and the ways in which they mould (or, occasionally, are moulded) by human activity. Britain has, as Marr put it, the most diverse geology for its size in the world (I detected a jingoish ring here: stick that in your pipe, Johnny Crapaud and Hans Knackwurst, with your tedious topsoils and your monotonous mineral deposits). It would have been nice to have this backed up with more detail, but the facts that did get through were good: Loch Ness holds more water than all the lakes of England and Wales combined! Northern Ireland is littered with gold-bearing rocks. A single hillside in Co Tyrone may contain 600,000 ounces of the stuff, at more than £500 an ounce. Some of the examples chosen to illustrate Marr's themes seemed odd. For example, the tour of Norfolk's eroding coast came out of a discussion of the power of the wind, but surely it's the sea, not the wind, that is the problem there.
What you watched for, though, was the extraordinary beauty of the world seen from another angle, in which everything was reduced to splashes of colour. Crowds of Rangers supporters parading to a match became a placid river of blue, the police mere spots of fluorescent yellow; the fields around Glastonbury were dappled blue and grey by festival-goers, with reds and yellows rising out as the cameras closed in; a camera switched to infra-red and the grey-green of Dorset heathland was suddenly washed purple, with fleeing deer like orange stars shooting against a night sky. And you watched to see Marr getting himself into ever more precarious positions: on top of snowy mountains, in a microlight, finally strung on the end of a hang-glider, learning to watch for the circling birds and columns of cumulus cloud that indicated a rising thermal. I liked this bit best, as Marr's pilot explained how the thermals bring with them the sounds and smells of the earth below, so that as you fly over a forest, you can be enveloped by the scent of pine bubbling up. At times, Britain from Above seemed too much in thrall to the uninterestingly picturesque – even open-cast mines and Cornish china-clay pits were prettified – but here and elsewhere, it threatened poetry. It should have been allowed to make good on the threat.
The main programme, on BBC1, was followed by a curious, quasi-relevant supplement on BBC2, comparing footage of Britain now with pictures from the past, in this case, most intriguingly, photographs of industrial centres taken by a Luftwaffe aerial survey some months before the Second World War. Marr offered a pair of case studies of post-industrial development: photos of the Rhondda over the decades showed the decline of the mining industry and the failure to find anything to take its place, Rhondda being off the beaten track and hemmed in by the very geography that made it productive. Swindon, on the other hand, was built on railways, and the same factors that made it useful in the railway age – principally, its central location – haven't made it any less useful in the age of motorways and computers, and so it continues to thrive. Mind you, if you gave me the choice of a weekend in the Rhondda and a weekend in Swindon, I'd take decline.
Another gloss on post-industrial Britain was on offer in Brits Who Made the Modern World. The final programme had Peter Snow – his genial enthusiasm every bit as versatile in its applications as Marr's – describing the creation of Elite, the world's first 3-D computer game, which gave this country a head start in the field that it still, astonishingly, hasn't chucked away. The story is told better in Francis Spufford's lovely book Backroom Boys, but the TV version had the advantage of being able to show you what the game looked like. The average five-year-old's stick man is, in comparison, a masterpiece of photorealism. You look at your computer now and think how far we've come, and you gawp.
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