Television / Life, the universe, and everything

Television
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
For My part I think that our television companies, by their lights, did the big story as well as it could be done. Each reader will anyway have their own views on whether there was too little or too much; on whether the tone was too reverential, or successfully captured the mood of the nation. Enough. Time to let go.

For, meanwhile, away from the single shots of grubby underpasses, away from the growing mounds of flowers, away even from studios full of carefully modulated grief, men and women still somehow explored the universe, crossed the globe, asked big questions and little questions and created things of beauty - as they do. And television was there to capture them doing it. Or - rather - to prompt them into action.

The widest scope belonged, of course, to the eponymous physicist in Stephen Hawking's Universe (BBC2, Sun). As I put the tape in the machine I realised that this was going to require some concentration, but I also knew that I would learn something. And then - a minute or so into the programme - the producers indulged themselves in an entirely understandable, but fatal, piece of pro- science hubris. With that poignant metallic voice emerging as if from behind the motionless lips, Hawking told us that, "I have sold more books on physics than Madonna has on sex".

This was a disastrous error. My subconscious mind, always easily diverted from matters mathematical, seized upon this statement and - without permission from my intellectual faculty - began to play with it. Sex and physics, Hawking and Madonna, in combinations ran like the major notes through my head, the programme's own arguments acting as minor punctuation.

So (I wondered), had more people actually read Hawking's books than had read Madonna on sex? Pythagoras lived on Samos. Was it the case that more people were interested in physics than sex? Copernicus was the father of astronomy. What would have happened if Stephen Hawking had written a book on sex? Galileo was persecuted by the church. Could I imagine Madonna presenting a programme on physics? Newton didn't sit under an apple tree. If I were to be seduced one night by a nubile beauty, would I be disappointed if all she wanted to do was to lie across her soft bed and discuss quantum theory? Hubble had a very big telescope.

Suddenly the programme was over, and I had missed it. I rewound the tape and started again - something that live viewers will not have done - and discovered a reasonable and nicely made show about the universe. But the thing that stuck in my head, the second time around, was the revelation that, so peripheral are we to the universe, we are not even made of the same "dark" matter that most of the trillions and squillions of stars and galaxies are. We are composed - in inter-galactic terms - of slightly peculiar bits and pieces. So, viewed in any reasonable perspective, we do not amount to much. And you can make up your own mind whether this thought makes the events of the last week any more or less explicable.

Quirky humanity, in all its perspectivelessness, is the stock in trade of the presenter on Full Circle with Michael Palin (BBC1, Sun). Having circumnavigated the earth in his first series eight years ago, then travelled from the North to the South Pole in his second, Palin's canny producers had found another journey for him to make - this time around the Pacific rim.

And once again I had to cope with my unruly imagination mapping out future expeditions for the agreeable ex-comedian. He can do one taking in the Indian Ocean. Then he can do another, Back of Beyond, calling at places where programmes never go because producers don't want to stay there (Byelorussia, Belgium, Wolverhampton, Malta, Algeria, Nebraska and Chad). After that it's Jules Verne time, with Palin Under the Ocean, Palin Under the Volcano and Michael Palin's Space Shuttle. Unfortunately the universe - as we know - is copyright of Stephen Hawking.

Whatever - Palin no longer has to tell us why he is making these arduous voyages. He is there to entertain us, and to serve up bite-sized chunks of extraordinary places and unusual people for an audience that might not care to watch a full 40 minutes on the wildlife of Asiatic Russia, or prospecting on the Alaskan coast. The material is so tightly edited that nothing he does and nowhere he goes lasts for more than six minutes, whether it is accompanying the political prisoner returned to the uranium mines of Magadan, or visiting the sulphur springs and smoking craters of the amazing Kamchatka nature reserve. We get a fleeting taste, an obligatory look at Palin looking, a quip about how remote everything is, how hard it is to travel like this - and on. You are left with the impression that the world is an amazing place, but one best seen quickly.

But there is a suspicious lack of spontaneity in this journey. Early on, Palin and crew seem to have decided to fashion a running joke out of our hero being taught a Russian folk tune by his minder, Igor. The first tutorial takes place over vodka one evening, Igor's tuneless baritone giving occasional clues to what the original melody might have been. Interestingly he fails to tell Palin (and thus Palin fails to tell the world) that this song is actually a eulogy to the Red Army. Anyway, Palin then hums this tune constantly as he visits various situations in Pacific Russia, culminating in a performance in Vladivostok by singing sailors of the Rossky Flot, in which Palin does a comedy act, himself dressed as a sailor. The punchline is that he is caught out by his over-enthusiasm, failing to stop when the rest of the ensemble does. It's all rather twee and obvious, and not the best use of Palin's considerable talent for encountering people and - as a hapless Englishman - enlisting their aid.

If Palin is hapless, Jonathan Miller, his comedic forerunner, is as hapful as anyone on the planet. With the universe - and now the earth - spoken for, Miller colonises the arts in Jonathan Miller's Opera Works (BBC2, Mon). And my God, is he good at it! In his mature years he has lost that breathlessness, and replaced it with an easy, gentle wit and a humane insight that encompass all the students, divas, directors and camera operators he works with, bringing out the best in them.

This series is shot in what looks like the ballroom of a crumbling wing of the Palace of Versailles. Ancient architraving is falling off the doors, the ornate cornices are missing in patches from the ceiling, Miller and the cast recline on huge, wrecked sofas from which the stuffing protrudes in white puffs. On the floor they have laid a huge white dust-sheet, and another is suspended from the highest part of the ceiling. A perfect piano sits in one corner.

In this ruined, magical place (actually the top floor of Whiteley's shopping complex in west London), Miller takes his singers through scenes from operas, last week showing them how they might stage the ensembles from The Marriage of Figaro and Britten's Midsummer Night's Dream.

I quite like opera, but I really love this. For a start, there is the Kids from Fame element, in which you see raw talent transformed by production. A couple of guys and gals singing a nice song, becomes a scene - a movement - full of laughter and understanding, as a consequence of an instruction, and two suggestions.

But it is Miller himself who captivates. His use of language and humour to illustrate what he wants an actor to do is an enormous treat in itself, seen in his thought that Figaro should respond to accusations from the Count as though he were a quietly insolent squaddie: "Wanna make something of it ... sir?" I have decided that Miller's power resides in his wonderful nose. Samson's hair gave the dim Israelite enormous strength, and Miller's splendid proboscis - at once sensitive and directive - does the same job for him. It comes at you over the screen, amused eyes and kindly smile dancing attendance, and bringing with it the best conversation in town. If I had had a hooter like that, I too might have been a genius. Watch him, if you get a chance.

And let us end with Peter Snow's Tomorrow's World (BBC1, Wed). Actually it isn't called that, the cult of the celebrity not having touched the modest 10-footer. The show itself was much the same programme that we know, love and occasionally watch, but Snowie exhibited all the signs of the former international footballer transferred prematurely from the club he loved, and determined to show everyone that there are still tricks in those toes. To that end he had cast off the musty weeds of news journalism and put on his gladrags, with a brilliant canary shirt, beige slacks and no tie.

And perhaps, now, we should do the same.

Comments