Television: Fangs ain't what he used to be

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
If reincarnation really happens (and Spooky Vorderman has not yet ruled it out), many modern men - readers of Loaded and Maxim, or viewers of Eurotrash - will be hoping to come back as mandrills. With one dominant male to an entire pack of horny females, who are happy to feed and fondle the patriarch, it sounds blissful.

Such was the world of Fangs, the biggest mandrill on the block in The Natural World: Painted Faces of the Forest (BBC2, Sunday). Conforming to the now-settled television-natural-history pattern of following a group of animals for a year or so, and giving them all names and personalities, this was a show set in the rainforests of Gabon. It was, we were promised "a tale of pain and intrigue" - a sort of mandrill EastEnders - centre- stage of which was the beetle-browed Fangs (who reminded me of a slightly more elegant version of Vinnie Jones).

Your average male mandrill is not well-endowed, his penis resembling a rather severely scraped baby carrot, which is banged very unceremoniously into the bloated vagina of the chosen female (incidentally, this took some explaining to a six-year-old at 5.45 on a Sunday afternoon). So Fangs and co make up for it by having scarlet noses and bright blue fur on their derrieres. The more intense the hue, the more virile the monkey, apparently; there seems to be no simian Claire Rayner around to reassure the boys that the colour of your nose doesn't matter, it's what you do with it that counts.

Despite the added attraction of possessing a red anus in the centre of a blue bottom, like the roundel on an RAF fighter, Fangs's life as head honcho was clearly precarious. Another male, named Punk (he has a Mohican tuft on his head) was getting brighter all the time, as "his sex hormone has tripled in three months", so "Fangs has good reason to look worried". Fangs actually looked exactly the same - incredibly stupid and incredibly randy - but the script demanded some drama at this point. Especially since the next time we caught up with the mandrills, Fangs had gone, and Punk had got his carrot out.

Still, the fate of Fangs seemed preferable to that of male hammerhead bats, visited in the same programme, who have to hang upside down in a line singing through their noses, waiting for a female to choose them. Only one in 20 gets selected, in a sexual tragedy rivalled only by college discos.

With the mandrills busy in the Gabonese rainforests, the makers of Wanted (C4, Wednesday), turned to Richard Littlejohn to present their new manhunt- show for lads. This is in the proud tradition of Anneka Rice's Treasure Hunt (much loved by English Heritage members who had got their Brownie proficiency badges in orienteering), which engendered a genuine tension as Anneka raced around bits of our tourist industry, collecting clues from under Regency commodes.

But times move on, Anneka slows down, and something altogether more dangerous is required for a generation raised on E and snowboarding. So instead of ordinary folk standing in a studio library guiding a gal in a blue boiler suit, in Wanted the ordinary folk are chased round Britain by SAS men in blue boiler suits, driving jeeps. Each week three couples travel on public transport, visiting a cathedral or a mayor every day, and are tracked by a snitching public and the tracker. And, magically, the moment of capture (or evasion) is supposed to coincide with the live broadcast of the show on Wednesday evenings. At this point the runners are forced to remain stationary in a public phone box, while their hunters move in. On hand to analyse their trade-craft are double agent Oleg Gordievsky and some geezer who once ran the Flying Squad (what a shame it is that Kim Philby is dead).

It does not take a genius to work out that - from the television-production point of view - this is all very dangerous. The chances are very high of the runners never being caught. Why should members of the public inform on them? And even if they do, how can they use the live hotline to tell the studio where the escapees are? I mean, if you can see them standing in their phone box , then you can't be indoors watching the programme on your TV, can you? Which all made for a strong feeling that the producers would have to cut corners to help the trackers close in on their prey, thus undermining the authenticity of the show.

What made this situation worse was the ineptitude of the presenter himself, who emerged into the studio out of what appeared to be a sewer pipe. Littlejohn himself is very fashionable. He has his own show on LWT, which he handles competently, and his outpourings in various tabloids are often mentioned reverentially by more high-brow commentators, as if such praise acted like an amulet to protect them from the charge of being too arty-farty and middle class. They do the same with the Daily Mail (his current employer), praising its professionalism. This pusillanimous relativism ends up with us admiring Stalin for his organisation, Goebbels for his communication skills and Maxwell for his enterprise - while they are alive, that is.

But the truth is that Littlejohn in print is a bully of the "we get legless, they go to jail for taking evil drugs; we shag birds, they are feckless single parents" school. Not for nothing are other writers sometimes referred to as "the thinking person's Richard Littlejohn"; the implication being (correctly) that Littlejohn himself is the bird-brain's Littlejohn.

This doesn't mean that he cannot present a television programme. But it doesn't mean he can, either. And I ended the hour in his company feeling that I'd been shouted at by a golf-club bore for the full 60 minutes. There was the casual, predictable sexism. "Let me turn to the lovely Victoria," he bellowed, turning to a woman on a monitor. "It says you do extreme sports. Does that include topless darts?" "Bit of a bad joke there, Richard," she replied, crossly. More references followed to Bulgarian barmaids, drinking and wives, most of them topped off with a thunderclap guf-faw - hahahhahaha! - supposedly denoting heartiness and earthy enthusiasm, but increasingly suggesting desperation.

As well it might, for everything was going wrong. Two girls had dropped out midweek, and this was presented as a success for the show, Littlejohn repeating ad nauseam that they had "cracked under the strain" of being tracked and "thrown in the towel". But unfortunately he couldn't quite prevent one tracker giving away the truth, that one of the women had gone down with the flu. Flu is not good telly; cracking is. Meanwhile, a couple of Liverpudlian cabbies had been on a pub crawl around the M25 and were now in Hackney, and two part-time Glaswegian barmen had ended up in Solihull. Extraordinarily, they had managed to see nothing or meet anybody of interest on the whole journey. Not so extraordinarily, despite what had obviously been some illegal help to the two trackers, neither couple was found, making this a complete dog of a show.

So why do we get another columnist - Tony Parsons on BBC2's Late Review arts programme (Thursday) - commending Littlejohn for being "better than looking at Anneka's great fat arse". And why did Mark Lawson and Germaine Greer allow this piece of unpleasantness to go unchallenged? I am not particularly squeamish and hold no brief for the Arse of Anneka, but there is a creeping nastiness, an ethical blindness, evident in some television at the moment - and I could do without it.

Perhaps they were being sympathetic to sufferers from the journalistic equivalent of Tourette's syndrome, the belief that loud yelling and abuse constitute conversation and argument. The real illness will be the subject of a future edition of The Mind Traveller (BBC2, Thursday), which started this week. Oliver Sacks, the author and neurologist, is everything that laddishness is not. He is sympathetic, humane, and travels under the easy and good-natured assumption that whatever he does to stimulate the strange patients he encounters must be to their benefit. It's an optimistic view. He was on the Pacific island of Guam this week, looking at an odd, Parkinson's- type disease, and he is a genuine delight on camera.

But then, I was pleased by peculiar things this week, like BBC2's incredibly professional coverage of The Booker Prize (Tuesday). This was hosted live by Sarah Dunant who, with hair raised from her nape and chiton dress, looked like Media, the ancient Greek goddess of litcrit. The fabulous Germaine was on hand to help out, along with Michael Dibdin and an Irish poet who always says "tremendous!". Dunant was smugly good, but her bottom is probably too big, and I suppose Littlejohn or fellow presenter Gary Bushell will do it next year ("that's a big one Vikram, hahhahaha!"). I wonder what Fangs is doing?

Comments