Television review - Life and Style - The Independent

Television review

I don't know whether you were aware of this but Ken Hom Travels With A Hot Wok. This doesn't sound like a television programme to me - it sounds like the sort of mysterious accusation you find scrawled on the back of a lavatory door. Indeed the title is so clumsy and inelegant (the result, one imagines, of an unresolved tussle between Ken's agent, the unfortunate producer and a feisty lawyer from the Hot Wok manufacturing company) that I can't even bring myself to review the programme. Presumably we should just be grateful that it isn't Ken Hom Travels Virgin Upper Class With a Hot Wok And Stays At The Hilton When He Gets There. Disaster (BBC2, 8.00), which precedes it, is a different wok of fish altogether as titles go - concise, explanatory and perfectly designed to appeal to our appetite for other people's calamities. Last night's episode was called "A Cut-Price Tragedy", which, on the evidence of the three films so far, would also do perfectly well as a series title. Because, whether you're a Channel Tunnel passenger, an astronaut, or an air-traveller it would seem that the most dangerous hazard you face is a middle-manager's calculator, tapping out the cost implications of a ha'porth of tar.

Though the disasters so far have been very variable in terms of loss of life and location they have all shared two things - the fatal decision involved money and the danger had been accurately predicted in official documents, and then ignored. This is likely to be the case with most disasters, of course - it's cheap to imagine what might go wrong with any human enterprise, prohibitively expensive to guarantee that it won't. 100 per cent safety would mean 100 per cent paralysis. But there are still cases where the profit-motive is found lurking just a little too close to the scene of the accident and where the warnings are so exact that they make queasy reading in the light of hindsight. Last night's programme dealt with the crash of a Valujet DC9 in the Everglades - and intercut the announcement of the accident with a reconstruction of a transport watchdog writing an article in which she warned American travellers about the dangers of cut-price airlines, a piece provoked by Valujet's lamentable record. She knew that the public assumption that "if it wasn't safe they wouldn't let it fly" couldn't be more wrong - a member of the FAA had actually written a memo suggesting that the airline should be grounded after repeated violations of regulations, but because the FAA was also responsible for promoting air travel as well as regulating it, it had been buried.

The film actually opened with news footage of the Secretary of Transportation delivering a fulsome commercial for Valujet while surrounded by the scorched debris of one of their planes - fortunately he couldn't be embarrassed by the background presence of dead former customers because those bodies which had not been recovered had been eaten by alligators. With footage as richly ironic as that, and with the presence of the people actually involved at the time, it is a mystery to me why the series continues to resort to wooden reconstructions - most of which come across like extracts from a bad soap opera. But if you can overlook that, it delivers an intriguing analysis of the way in which office politics and commercial ambition can dull the obligation to fear the worst - instead of just hoping for the best.

Having watched Disaster, one phrase stuck out of The Ship as if blazoned with fluorescent marker pen - a ship yard manager was worrying about spiralling cost overruns during the conversion of a vast bulk carrier into a pipe- laying ship: "We'll have to have a closer look at how we work," he said resignedly, "and see where we can cut some corners." The imagination instantly offered a close-up of a vital bolt shearing during a Force Ten gale. C4's series about an attempt to resuscitate the Swan Hunter shipyard is often baffling, but it is also full of incidental revelations - the most striking being the changed status of the shop-steward. "We put our names in the hat," said a glum man, "and unfortunately mine came out."

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