The Weekend's TV: Sperm Whale: Inside Nature's Giants Special / Sun Channel 4, Ronnie Corbett's Comedy Britain / Sat ITV1

Whale of a time with the monster bunch

"I know him not," says Ishmael, the narrator of Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, "and never will." The best documentaries about the natural world reveal more about what we don't know than what we do. Together with the sheer majesty of the species dissected, this is what made Sperm Whale: Inside Nature's Giants Special one of the outstanding nature documentaries of recent years.

And that despite an inauspicious setting. In March, a sperm whale was beached on the craggy sands of Pegwell Bay in Kent. Taupe skies gave a grimness to its final setting, but veterinary scientist Mark Evans, who looks like the sort of person you'd back in a fight with a cobra, saw this as a marvellous opportunity. He and the producers called in a garrulous anatomist called Joy Reidenberg, who soon emerged as the star of the show. In a 20-hour burst, first under floodlights and later fighting the tide, they went digging into Leviathan.

Cetacea, the order that includes whales and dolphins, comes from the Greek ketos, meaning "sea monster". That is how whales were thought of for long, with a vast incongruity between their size and our tiny understanding of them. Whales were first filmed under water only in 1975. Sperm whales can be around 20m long, weigh 60 tonnes, have probably the biggest brain of any animal and produce the loudest noise – over 200 decibels and audible to human ears nearly 40 miles away. The have a prehensile penis and a nose that must strengthen the otherwise silly case for intelligent design.

They are so named, we discovered, because the spermaceti (a wax-like substance) stored in their vast head, which constitutes a quarter of the body, looks like semen. This substance, sometimes called whale oil, provided the smokeless flames that lit Victorian England. Naturally, the producers had sympathy for the plight of the species at the hands of man, but thankfully the misanthropy wasn't laid on too thick. Instead, the further we dug inside this enormous, fresh cadaver, the more fascinating the biology lesson became.

Sperm whales have so much blubber because they need to withstand extreme cold and high pressure at the bottom of the ocean, where they find food. At these depths they can get down to one or two heartbeats per minute. Possibly their most amazing feature is a nostril that both breathes and, through a set of inner lips, sends a giant noise rebounding through the head, emitting from the front of the nose. This "clang" is the loudest language known life can produce.

There was a dual narrative between Evans and a chap called Simon Watt, who was off speaking to experts about all things whale. Richard Dawkins had a walk-on part too, narrating a few diagrammatic asides. At times, it felt like two shows were being forced into one, but that could be forgiven because of how beautifully directed the beach scenes were.

The gruesome adventure into blood and blubber on Pegwell Bay had a kind of nobility. Science itself was on the march here, entering a bodily universe in search of clues about life in our oceans. The ultimate hero was the nameless whale, and by the time its hacked body was conquered by the tide, gleaming puce and silver, we had the abiding consolation of a life donated to human knowledge, which is not a bad thing for a sea monster to achieve.

Size has always been central to Ronnie Corbett's fame too – or rather, the lack of it. As if to prove the point, Matt Lucas described him as "a giant" in the introductory sequence of Ronnie Corbett's Comedy Britain. That sequence made this sound like a long and slightly tedious tour of Corbett's lunch companions, with the aim of presenting him as the patron saint of British comedy. In fact, it was utterly wonderful.

Miranda Hart, Stephen Merchant, David Mitchell and John Cleese were among those who shared insights into what makes comedians tick and comedy funny. The former is mainly the potential for going from bladder-wrenching insecurity to megalomania in the blink of an eye. The latter is mainly timing.

Corbett proved a superb and humble interrogator. He didn't address the decline of the sitcom and the relative rise of sketch shows, nor did he ask why so many comedies these days centre on flocks of people, rather than families, and what that says about our society. But he did remind us that contemporary British comedy is full of great talent, a useful corrective to the nostalgic defeatism of most televisual trips down memory lane.;

Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey


Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Gravelle on trial for Danny Latimer's murder as Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

Review: Broadchurch episode 7

Arts and Entertainment
Barry Norman has predicted a Best Actor win for Michael Keaton at this Sunday's awards

Arts and Entertainment
The right stuff: 'Ukip: the First 100 Days'

Review: UKIP: The First 100 Days TV
Arts and Entertainment
Anastasia Steele with Christian Grey in his offices in Fifty Shades of Grey

Arts and Entertainment
Class act: Julia McKenzie and Keeley Hawes in 'The Casual Vacancy'

JK Rowling's story is a far better drama than it is a book

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers

Arts and Entertainment
The BBC's version of 'The Crimson Petal and the White'


Arts and Entertainment
We will remember them: 'Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red' at the Tower of London

Art Police investigate abuse sent to Paul Cummins over Tower of London installation

Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman was named worst actress for her performance as Grace Kelly in Grace of Monaco
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game; the film’s producer, Harvey Weinstein, said the UK government ought to honour its subject
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower