BBC2 has suffered its own accident of timing here, because Disaster follows hard on the heels of Black Box, a similar exercise from Channel 4, but one which was fortified against criticism by its focus and historical scope (even more unfortunately, next week's Disaster tells the story of the Sioux City aircrash, an event which formed the bulk of Black Box's most gripping episode). The comparison does no favours for the BBC series. Where Black Box was reliant on eye-witness accounts and recordings, Disaster settled instead for dramatic reconstruction - a contradiction in terms as it turns out, because the performances have the counter-productive effect of smoothing out the grain and texture from real dialogue. Heard on the cockpit voice recorders, a joke exchanged between the pilots had an authentic shiver of mastered terror; repeated by actors of moderate ability (the constraints of budget and facial similitude make any other kind unlikely), it just sounds like a cheesy piece of Hollywood fortitude.
This effect was borne out by last night's opening programme on the Piper Alpha disaster. If we are to believe the somewhat mechanical acted sequences, not one of the tough oilmen involved in this terrifying event uttered even the mildest obscenity as they tried to work out what was happening. Sweat beaded their brow, voices were raised, but not a "damn" sullied the smoky air. This is falsification, not clarification, an odd muting of what must have been far more intense and confusing. What makes such sequences more irritating is that they are not even necessary.
By far the most memorable thing in the film was the moment when a secondary explosion blew the gas pipelines - a scene accompanied by the information that three tonnes of gas per second (one and a half times the entire UK gas consumption) - was burning in a space 75 metres square. The conventional modesty garment for these snuff movies is the notion of "lessons to be learned", but the Piper Alpha film couldn't even hide behind that gauzy justification. The people who really need educating got it years ago, from the Cullen report. And as for the viewer? Well, of the 61 men who survived the disaster, almost all did so because they had ignored their safety training - hardly a lesson that will stand any viewer in good stead for the next occasion they might find themselves on a burning oil rig.
Survival's film (ITV) about elephants in the Namib desert exemplified the inflationary pressures on wildlife film-makers. Another film about elephants? No thanks - we've got a trunk-full already. Elephants surfing down sand-dunes? Now you're talking. These scenes were very beautiful, in fact, in particular a bull elephant trailing one big pantomime leg behind him as he coasted downwards in a golden sift. But the most fascinating organisms on screen were the film-makers themselves. Des and Jen Bartlett live a nomadic existence on the Skeleton Coast, loading all their belongings onto two microlight aircraft before hopping to the next tiny waterhole. Fortunately, there was another wildlife film-maker on hand to capture their strange behaviour patterns. Despite the rigours of desert life, these unique creatures had managed to breed; the film ended with a magical sequence in which the daughter and grandson turned up, reassuring proof that this rare species will survive into the next generation.
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