The Weekend's TV: Wild china Sun BBC2
Mad Men Sun BBC4
Make time for some monkey business
Monday 19 May 2008
Despite the fact that it is a medium that puts a premium on watching, most television is irredeemably literary in its approach. Even sporting events, which you might take as an epitome of dumb spectacle, are busily reworked into dramas by the commentary, as if plot and narrative sequence are indispensable elements of any worthwhile transmission. Natural-history programmes are no exception to this rule, artfully (even deceitfully) often stitching the footage together so that a kind of furry soap results. But Wild China, BBC2's new series, is about as purely spectacular as television is ever likely to get. Its model is not a serial drama or a children's story, but a picture book, and while it comes with a commentary it will be no more necessary to most consumers than the essays are in the National Geographic magazine.
What a picture book it is though, a reminder that wildlife programmes are often likely to provoke an combination of rapture and boredom. Rapture because the images are ravishing and unexpected; boring because there's no particular reason why one should follow another. The page turns and another dazzling full-page illustration is revealed to view, and then another, and then another. Look, here's the Yunnan snub-nosed monkey, dancing along a branch in what looks like a pair of ostrich-feather bloomers, its lips smeared a bright pink, like a child that's got at mummy's lipstick. And here's a male Temminck's tragopan, flashing a female from behind a rock with his vivid bib of blue and magenta, an Aston Villa football shirt sponsored by his own biological exuberance. Enough, move on, here's a bamboo bat, no bigger than a bumble bee and sharing its home inside a bamboo plant with a squirming cluster of its close relatives.
What links these wonders is not a particular line of argument but a geographical location, the mountains of Yunnan, where climate and geology conspire to create a tropical forest where there really shouldn't be one. And it's absolutely stuffed with creatures marvellously and sometimes self-defeatingly adapted to its particular conditions. The bamboo rat, for example, has worked out a way to tug the younger shoots underground into its burrows, so that if you're in the right place at the right time you'll see the foliage shrinking back into the earth (I suspect the film-makers, not being in quite the right place at the right time, used an offscreen bamboo wrangler). No creature though is as startling in its ingenuity as a mammal indigenous to these parts, not to mention virtually every other habitat on the planet. The bamboo rat can do one thing with bamboo eat it but the local villagers can do hundreds of things with it, including eating it in a piquant Yunnanese sauce and then using it as a pipe for a post-meal smoke. Or, most brilliantly, as a fishing rod for hornets. The Dai people bait a bamboo stick with a locust and use it to distract a hornet, while they tie a small flag of white feather around its abdomen. This then allows them to trail the insect back through the forest to its nest, which can be smoked and broken open for a snack of fresh hornet larvae. They have an ingenious solution to the awkwardness of the local terrain, too, zipping across swollen river gorges on inclined cables, with their livestock dangling beneath them, a set of images that were here edited into a lovely aerial ballet. I have a feeling that the heartland demographic for wildlife documentaries gets a bit restive when the camera cuts away from the flora and fauna to dwell on the humans that live among them, but I have to say they're my favourite animals.
Not that they always behave impeccably, of course, as Mad Men continues to prove. In last night's episode, everybody hung around in the office to watch the results of the Kennedy/Nixon election battle, a contest that we know finally went Kennedy's way but which everybody at the time expected would be a win for Nixon. Since election graphics at the time consisted of a man in a studio chalking numbers on a blackboard the election coverage soon came second to eating into the company's liquor reserves and running bets on what coloured panties the secretaries are wearing (results compiled by chasing the candidate down between the desks and pulling up her skirt). When the young woman who has the key to the hospitality cupboard revealed that they are well stocked with crme de menthe, an enterprising account man fills the water cooler with the green stuff and the party really lifts off. I can't tell you how much I hope that someone somewhere once did this. If not, and you can bear to drink crme de menthe, then it may be time for a bit of emulative behaviour. I recommend that you get signed consent before attempting any kind of underwear inspection though.
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