The Weekend's TV: Martin Clunes &ndash; Horsepower, Sun, ITV1<br/>Roger and Val Have Just Got In, Fri, BBC2

Hardly any mares behaving badly
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The Independent Culture

Martin Clunes – Horsepower began with what I thought was a hazardous rhetorical question: "Is there any animal as beautiful or graceful or powerful as a horse?" he asked, as a stallion pounded through the surf in slow motion.

Well... yes actually, Martin, I thought... quite a few, since you've raised the issue. There are Siberian tigers and snow leopards and even mountain gorillas, who got their own programme earlier in the evening over on BBC2. There are even – provided you pick judiciously and define "power" a bit more broadly – quite a lot of human beings who might give the horse a run for its money. Which wasn't, obviously, the answer Clunes was looking for. He wanted a horsey whinny of anticipation from the audience, assumed to be the kind of people who don't shy skittishly when the presenter maunders on about "our bond with these graceful giants".

There being a lot of horse-lovers in Britain, I don't suppose it was a bad bet. But the interesting thing about Horsepower was how bearable it was even for the horse-indifferent, such as myself. After all, the elementary conundrum Clunes posed at the beginning of the programme ("Why on earth would such a big flighty animal let me sit on his back and ride him?") is quite intriguing, and there's no question that the horse has been intimately knitted into the story of human civilisation, first as foodstuff and then as an extraordinarily adaptable source of power. And the answers that Clunes supplied for his question teetered suggestively between exploitation and love – the former often reconfigured and softened by the latter so that employment could look like a relationship.

The water-cooler moment was the bit where Clunes learned to talk to his own horse, Chester, after a bit of tuition in equine body language from the horse whisperer Monty Roberts. After pretending to be a bear for a few minutes (frankly it would only have convinced a horse), Clunes then cold-shouldered Chester for a while, an assumption of superiority that Chester fell in with. By the end, he was walking at his owner's side like an obedient dog, putting a beaming smile on to Clunes's face and – it has to be admitted – a smaller version on to mine. Slightly less enchanting was the revelation – courtesy of a horse psychologist in Dubai – that all horse races are essentially artificially induced mass hysteria, the flight instinct of the horse exploited to get them all to run hell-for-leather, on the basis that if all the others are doing it there must be an urgently good reason. They're not striving to stay at the front for love of the sport. They're doing it because they think there's something with teeth coming up fast behind.

There were points at which the less devoted viewer may have peeled off, such as the moment when Clunes visited an Arizona equine-therapy clinic and found himself in the paddock/consulting room addressing a four-legged consultant: "Divo," he said, following the instructions of the very solemn group leader, "you are the teacher, I am the student. What is the lesson?" Divo stuck its head in a bucket and ignored him, tangential evidence that horses may actually be brighter than I've generally given them credit for. I got the giggles, to be honest, but Clunes didn't, coming over all weepy after crediting Divo with pinpointing his troubling need for public attention and approval. He then took to the air in a helicopter to look at mustangs in Nevada, horses that have escaped from human domestication and gone back to living wild. Having spent most of the programme suggesting that the horses were getting as much out of domestication as we were, Clunes changed tack (nautically rather than horsily, if you see what I mean) and made a passionate case for their right to roam: horses trusted us, he explained, and "if we lock these wild ones up I think we're betraying that trust". It didn't do to follow the detailed logic of this argument too far – still, it was all surprisingly bearable for a general audience, and utter bliss, I imagine, for little girls with a crush on a pony.

In Roger and Val Have Just Got In, Val came back from work with three noodle bakes, two more than she could fit into her refrigerator, which is what passes for a plot highlight in Beth and Emma Kilcoyne's daringly understated comedy. It's something of a noodle bake itself, this series: looping strands of domestic wittering and bickering in a sauce of beautifully cooked blandness, not exactly a showy dish, but reassuring and comforting in its ordinariness. I could quote lines at you all day without being able to make a convincing case for it, because it's all about context and the recognisability of the moment. As Roger and Val, Alfred Molina and Dawn French underplay it beautifully, commiserating with each other about the day's minor setbacks (11 dead rice plants for Roger, who works as a botanist at the Winter Gardens, and feels about exotic flora as Martin Clunes does about Chester) and never talking about the big drama in their life – the death of a child, the illness of a parent – things that you glimpse as if out of the corner of your eye in passing. The programme takes half an hour to go nowhere, but it's those unmentioned griefs that make it work. It's just how life goes on, quite substantial portions of it sustained by gentle self-deception and the magnification of stuff that doesn't really matter.

t.sutcliffe@independent.co.uk

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