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TV & Radio

TELEVISION / Burke's reflections on the revolution in space

A FEW weeks ago I wrote that I could watch a film about the space programme even if it was presented by James Burke, a complacent boast encouraged by the fact that the man in question hadn't disturbed our screens for years. Last night Carlton called my bluff with their latest offering in the Network First series 'Apollo - When the World Held Its Breath', the last and most tangential of the Moon landing anniversary films - presented by James Burke. It was pretty tough going here and there, but I have to say that I made it . . . and how the memories came flooding back. The gift for tendentious argument, the addiction to intellectual melodrama - all there, as infuriating as they were 20 years ago.

'The Apollo programme,' he began, 'was sold as one of the greatest scientific achievements ever. It wasn't . . . millions watching believed it couldn't fail. It did.' Sonorous and arresting, it's true, but almost immediately contradicted by Burke's only saving grace, his irrepressible enthusiasm for technological innovation. Despite the fact that Nasa was dumbfounded by Kennedy's pledge to put a man on the moon by the end of the decade (at the time they hadn't even put one into orbit), despite the pioneering nature of much of the science, they did it. On Apollo 8, Burke pointed out, only five components out of 5 million failed, an astonishing figure for such a complex feat of engineering.

Most of Burke's film, though, was dedicated to Apollo 13, the mission which provided the excuse for all that doomy chatter about failure at the beginning. Apollo 13 was the mission which re-ignited public interest in the space programme, with the possibility that three astronauts might be marooned in space after an explosion in one of their oxygen tanks. It was a gripping tale, aided by some lustrous computer animations and scary statistics (at one point the men had 14 minutes of oxygen left in the command module and were 200,000 miles from home).

But I find Burke so irritating that I can't even allow him perfectly ordinary figures of speech; I'm niggled into pedantry. 'What the crew don't know as the Saturn lifts off at 13.13 local time is that they're flying a time-bomb.' No they're not, idiot, they're passengers in a faulty spacecraft. 'One piece of equipment has a fatal flaw.' No it doesn't, nitwit - nobody died, even if it was a close shave.

BBC 2 appears to have developed a new scheduling principle - the instant and original repeat. Viewers who remember the wonderful film about rugby and apartheid in Christopher Terrill's series Beloved Country may have been puzzled that On the Line chose to return to the subject so soon; they will have been even more startled to find a virtually identical programme (same themes, same contributors, same channel) broadcast on the following night, as part of the Whole Different Ball Game series. Of the two, On the Line was better, crisper and more coherent in its presentation of the facts and more assured in its look.

But 'Voortrekker Ruck', though baggy and sometimes baffling in structure, contained one important scene. To balance the inspirational example of Morne du Plessis, a repentant exSpringbok captain, and Cheeky Watson, who sacrificed his playing career to teach the game to black children, you were offered Uli Schmidt, an obdurate lump of unchippable prejudice. 'I don't believe our blacks are made to play rugby,' he said, 'It's not in their culture.' At which point I offered up a small prayer that, when the time comes, he loses his team place to one of 'his' blacks. That's unlikely to happen, though, until 'their culture' ceases to be shaped by calculated and enforced disadvantage.