I watched Ray Mears, and survived; TELEVISION

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Could you fill a studio? Does the camera love you? Do you own your screen persona? If not, don't apply to work in television. Where, once, a self-effacing narrator would read scripts in pleasant tones, a reporter would pop up in occasional pieces to camera, or a chat-show host might ask questions and then listen to the answers, these days the messenger is often the medium. Value must be added by the presenter him or herself, and the amount of that value is sometimes very high.

Consider the prospect of Ray Mears's World of Survival (BBC2, Monday), without Ray Mears. Mears - a "wilderness expert" (a title conferred with the same confidence as might be given to a "health secretary", or an "archbishop of York") - is scrub-faced, canvas-hatted and wears one of those waist- coat things with many pockets. Rugged and tireless, Mears doesn't just talk about survival, and show you a few VHS's of Eskimos fishing or Papuan head-hunters hunting for heads; Mears is seen actually surviving, which is a large part of the fun.

This week he was surviving in Crocodile Dundee territory - the tropical jungle called Arnhemland (fly to Darwin and turn left). We first caught up with him trampling through heavy underbrush in a pair of turbo-charged DMs, while telling the camera that this was no place for weaklings. "Your average Brit lost here," he warned, "would die in under a week." This underwhelmed me, since the figure for Glasgow is about three days.

Meanwhile the camera operator, who was having very little difficulty in surviving - even without the aid of a machete and big boots - was picking up shots of bleached skulls, venomous serpents, and other impedimenta. Ray was there to remind him and us that, to survive, you need four things: "Shelter, food, fire and clean drinking water."

But actually there is something much more important than these; something that marks out the true survivor from the doomed wretch like me (destined to perish if faced with anything even remotely remote). It is, of course, the capacity to eat absolutely anything, no matter how revolting.

First Ray was treated by some aboriginal pals to Giant Monitor Lizard. Yerrss, and how was this cooked, the Delia fans may ask. Filleted, skinned, marinated in Baobab sap and sauted over a low flame? No fear. Held by the tail and dumped, whole, on top of a fire. Followed by yummy turtle; held by the neck and baked whole (shell included - "It's the best bit," says your Gran) in a makeshift oven. "Mmm. It tastes like stringy, chewy fish," said Mears.

But best of all were the mangrove worms. Looking like well-used elephant condoms, these were scraped, wriggling, out of the interiors of mangrove trees to be eaten alive. Personally, if I so much as stepped on a mangrove worm I would be sick - but not Ray Mears. "It's actually pretty good," he told us, licking his lips complacently, "like crab pate." Does Ray (I wondered), when he gets a day off and visits a top-notch restaurant like Le Pont de la Tour, make a point of telling the waiter how deliciously the crab pate reminds him of mangrove worm? How long would he survive if he did?

Which reminds me - what would they call the programme were Mears to die on one of his expeditions? How about Ray Mears's World of Survival: Oh Shit?

But if the World of Survival could not easily survive without Ray, there would certainly be no Even Further Abroad (BBC2, Wednesday) without the extraordinary Jonathan Meades. This series of illustrated essays is almost the perfect fusion of well-written newspaper pontification with TV trickery. If you don't always follow the argument, you can be diverted by the visual performance itself.

The unique feature of this series is the screen ubiquity of Meades. He appears, besuited, in almost every single shot - either speaking or actively observing. This omni-presence is reminiscent of a Gilbert and George exhibition, except with G&G forced, kicking and screaming, to share the same suit. And the show is pre-scripted - almost word for word - in advance. It is also (to introduce yet another bit of telly jargon) story-boarded - in other words, the director has a clear picture in his or her mind of exactly what shot should illustrate which point - nothing is left to chance.

This week Meades had chosen to look at new church architecture which - on the whole - he abhorred. "Efficacy as a church derives from a lack of ambiguity," he told us. "God is a Goth." Working away to convince us of this was Meades's verbal virtuosity - at one point he talked of something being "capable of catalysing the illusion of transcendence" (you may not have been able to work out what it meant, but you sure as hell admired him for having said it) - and also some very neat tricks of the director's trade. I particularly enjoyed the choirboy singing an a capella version of "Bat out of hell".

Only afterwards, when I had a second to roll Meades's thesis round in my head, did I discover that there was a problem with it. A problem called America, where rising church attendances file into just the sort of buildings that Meades so dislikes.

It was easier to argue with my old colleague and mentor, Brian Walden, in his completely unscripted 25-minute extemporisation on a former Labour leader in Walden on Gaitskell (BBC2, Monday). At least I could understand what he was saying. I should imagine that rule one in giving such a perilously difficult talk on the telly is not to use phrases like "catalysing the illusions of transcendence". You might get lost and not survive to the end of the sentence.

But is this, as some have charged, a misuse of the medium? Is it really radio on TV? I suppose it partly depends on whether you like to look at people when they talk to you; whether it helps you to catch Walden's ironic smile, or a narrowing of his eyes. I do like and it does help. It may not be The Natural World, but I think that good talk makes good TV - and this is brilliant talk.

Walden himself (as those who know him will testify) is an exceptionally bright man and an extraordinary talker; a man in whom some strange brake has always been applied when on the brink of really great achievement. When this short series on Labour leaders finishes, I would like to see him tackling some of the big questions of our times, and really stretching himself.

Or - failing that - how about Brian Walden's World Of Survival ("it tastes just like cwab"), Jonathan Meades at the Conservative Party Conference (c'mon Mr Jackson, surely that's a commission!), or Even Further Abroad with Ray Mears (next week: Camping in Devon, cooking viper over a Gaz stove while being serenaded by a Mariachi band).

It is also interesting (though, as Alan Bennett once wrote, fruitless) to speculate how a touch of the Meades might have livened up Love Life (Channel 4, Sunday), the new five-part look at the alchemy of successful relationships.

Introduced by Dr Janet Reibstein (at least the name is right - who would tune in for lessons on loving from, say, Bunty Blatch?), this series takes a different aspect of coupledom each week, and illustrates it with video taken from fly-on-the-wall cameras in people's houses. It aims to answer the question, "do the lovebirds belong to a special club, or can anyone join?"

Apparently there are five things needed for a relationship to survive. They are: shelter, food, fire and clean drinking water. No, er, sorry, wrong list. They are: Protection, Balance, Focus, Gratitude and Pleasure (although, had I been told that they were Penetration, Holidays, Photos, Family and Tolerance I would have believed it).

Now these things are fundamental. So why did I find the programme so dull? Mostly, I suppose, because the shots of committed, contented couples were tedious. As Tolstoy put it, "All happy families are alike, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way". But in Love Life there was only one unhappy family, and their way was simply not to communicate.

What we needed was a commentator to interpret what we were seeing in a bold and lively way. To be exact, we were in want of Ray Mears's World of Family Survival, of Walden on Bluebeard, and of Even Further A Bride with Jonathan Meades.

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