The Weekend's TV: Penn & Teller: Fool Us, Fri, ITV1
Arctic with Bruce Parry, Sun, BBC2
Dispatches: The Battle for Haiti, Sun, Channel 4
Some new names to conjure with
Monday 10 January 2011
As the BBC's new show The Magicians is ponderously demonstrating early on Saturday evening, there are only essentially a handful of magic tricks, most of which have been around for hundreds of years.
The business of coming up with something fresh usually lies in concealing the old clockwork under a new casing. The competitors in The Magicians – notionally competing against each other with the help of celebrity assistants – aren't always terribly successful at this, which makes the programme sag distinctly, unless you're 10 years old and can bring an unsmirched innocence to the thing. As ITV revealed the previous night, though, you can successfully liven up a magic show by bringing a bit of jaded, seen-it-all-before scepticism to the affair. In Penn & Teller: Fool Us, one of Las Vegas's most successful magic acts (and dedicated debunkers) challenged a group of British magicians to restore to them the "beautiful, wonderful feeling" of not having a clue how it was done. If they couldn't explain the trick, the act that had successfully bamboozled them would get the opportunity to do a cameo spot in their Las Vegas show. Since they've been in the business for over 30 years – and since they know themselves that most tricks are variations on a handful of basics – they appeared ruefully confident that they weren't going to be bested.
Penn and Teller had nothing to lose frankly – either they confirmed their reputation for conjuring eminence or they got the thrill of something they hadn't seen before. But the acts that appeared before them were taking a genuine risk, exposing their best illusion in a forum that could effectively leave it unrepeatable. The man who appeared to pull the heads off a live chicken and duck and successfully transplant them round got away with it. Penn and Teller knew immediately how it was done, but admired his style anyway. Richard Bellars, who did a brainwashing trick, was less fortunate, since Penn effectively revealed exactly how he'd done it. The next guy, a card-handler, was no more successful. And then – just when you were suspecting that there really was nothing new under the sun – the most unlikely candidate, a comedy magician called John Archer, stumped them with an almost bumbling bit of sleight of hand. "It's what you came for!" Jonathan Ross reminded them when Penn showed his exasperation. "Yes... but not by him!" replied Penn, who'd clearly expected defeat to come in a more dignified form. They also confessed to having been stumped by the details of a card-shuffling trick, though I suspect they'd have worked it out 10 minutes later. The programme definitely pulled off its trick, anyway, and it was a much better one than The Magicians has up its sleeve.
Bruce Parry – who has foisted his cheery presence on remote tribes all over the world – is currently making his way round the Arctic, making gauche small talk with the native people who eke out a living in this ungenerous landscape. Last night, he was in Greenland, where he began by visiting the hunters of Qaanaaq. "Look at your sled!" he said to the man he was going to be billeted on. "Amazing!" Which I assume is a bit like an Inuit broadcaster going up to an Essex builder and saying "Wow! A Ford Transit... I've only ever read about them." The hunter got his revenge by making Bruce eat a bit of raw narwhale fin, not realising that he's something of a hero when it comes to exotic gourmandising. After the hunting party he was with had killed a seal, they descended on the freshly eviscerated carcass as if it was the buffet at a wedding and Parry didn't hold back: "Can't miss an opportunity like this... steamy seal stomach skin... Wow! That is a real taste sensation." He wouldn't go back for seconds of seal's eyeball, he said, but the fact that he'd had even one was mildly impressive. As was his willingness to visit a terrifying zinc mine, the entrance to which was situated halfway up a sheer fjord cliff-face, where off-season climbers were busy clearing the site for the cable car that would allow its riches to be exploited. The thought stirred in you that it was something of a pity that this pristine landscape was about to be industrialised, however tactfully it was going to be done. But then you remembered the words of a seal hunter, protesting at restrictions on his traditional way of life by Western conservationists. "We are friendlier to the environment than polluting countries," he pointed out, with considerable justice. I doubt that Greenlanders like him are getting much say in the development of billion-dollar mining enterprises, but if some of the riches stay in the country it won't be all bad.
Dispatches: The Battle for Haiti offered an unnerving glimpse of what life is like when government – so casually despised in this country – disappears altogether. It told the story of the country's descent into lawlessness, exacerbated by the fact that many of the most violent prisoners in Port au Prince's jails had escaped during the earthquake and are now running the vast tented villages in which the homeless live. There's no justice in the camps – terrorised by thugs who rape and steal – and no justice out of them either. Corruption is rife, so real criminals can usually afford to bribe their way out of jail, while the falsely accused can languish for up to five years waiting for a trial. They need another earthquake, but a social one this time.
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