TV Review: Just One Chance

I had some problems with Horizon's second programme about the Antarctic. Some of these may have to do with the howling white-out in my own brain. Then again, the film did seem to buck and dip in a way that might throw off the fittest viewer.

It seems that some principle of balance governs Carol Vorderman's current employment by the BBC - on Tuesday night she contributes to the stupefaction of the nation with her dimwitted show Mysteries and then on Thursday she tries to make amends by presenting Just One Chance (BBC2), a magazine programme about schools which aims to smarten up parents in their duties as educational consumers. Still, though I can't readily forgive her for putting her name to the former programme, the latter offers some evidence that reform might be possible - that her attractions as a presenter can be put to better use than spreading compost on paranoia and superstition. Just One Chance is very sprightly in its manner - it has a vivid day-glo set which looks like the packaging for a child's toy, a big cartoon of a girl in pigtails and an audience who applaud the arrival of the presenters (Vorderman is backed up by Martin Bashir) and then chip in with carefully researched soundbites (they are not really there to discuss anything, you soon discover, but as human bullet points, giving pros and cons and personal testimonials).

This hybrid of two kinds of daytime television - Saturday morning and week day - seems to indicate a certain anxiety about the essential attractions of the subject. If so it is understandable. After all, no one with children is going to watch this programme to wind down after a stressful day. Its entire agenda is one of mobilisation so it isn't surprising that a sense of duty or even dread is never far away. And that said, the series is both watchable and encouraging - offering a blend of straight consumer information and reports on current education issues (I wasn't aware, for instance, that Cherie Blair will shortly be in the High Court acting against David Blunkett, in the case of a child refused a school place solely because of the aggressive behaviour of her parents). If the right sort of parents do watch it - not just those who are already sufficiently conscientious to pass up the rival charms of The Bill and Animal Hospital - then its underlying ethic of parental involvement (stopping some way short of assaulting the teachers, naturally) should do nothing but good. I hope teachers will look in on it occasionally too - last night's report on a way of alleviating unhappiness in the playground by training older children to act as chaperones was a perfect example of the simple schemes of improvement which deserve a wider currency.

It's only fair to note that I watched the second of Horizon's (BBC2) programmes about the Antarctic through a haze of viral grogginess - so some of my problems with the film may have to do with the howling white- out in my own brain, rather than the peculiarly unforgiving nature of that landscape as far as television is concerned (there seemed to be an extraordinary number of sequences in which three brown dots slowly traversed an expanse of white, or a small red dot floated above ditto). Then again Kate O'Sullivan's film did seem to buck and dip in a way that might throw off the fittest viewer. It wasn't just her fondness for overlapping archive and contemporary footage so that you could see neither clearly, but also her taste for the comic non-sequitur. The film told the story of a British geologist's attempt to explain why Antarctica originally separated from Gondwanaland, the super-continent from which Africa, South America and the South Pole were pupped. He thought it was probably to do with something called a mantle-plume, a massive upwelling of molten rock, evidence for which theory he doggedly pursued across the ice-cap. "But the model that a mantle plume created Antarctica will need one more proof" announced the voice-over at one point, a sentence that would ordinarily be followed by the proof in question. Here it was succeeded by footage of a man failing to make radio contact and a sequence in which invisible geologists in a tent debated the merits of different curries. This was part of a running gag about the bathetic grumpiness with which geologists go about their cosmic task and it did make me giggle but it didn't exactly help my enfeebled brain keep its grip on the thread of the argument.

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