The art of the weather report

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The Independent Online

It took me a couple of days to pin it down, but I've finally identified the nagging sense of déjà vu I felt whenever I looked at the BBC's new 3D graphics for the weather report.

It took me a couple of days to pin it down, but I've finally identified the nagging sense of déjà vu I felt whenever I looked at the BBC's new 3D graphics for the weather report. What was it about the dun expanse of the national outline that looked so familiar? It had something to do with the contrast between the overcast sections and those notionally bathed in sunlight, I knew that much, and the papery sheen of the highlighted terrain was also naggingly reminiscent of something I'd seen in nature.

And then, shortly after a low swoop over scattered showers in the Midlands, I got it. It's a cow-pat, captured with an almost hallucinatory attention to detail. One of those splattery, ill-defined cow-pats, it's true, but beautifully rendered all the same. Looking at it you just know that the damp patches would still yield to the touch while the bits that have dried to a crust would give a papery rustle under foot. All that's missing is the flies. On Monday night - in a faintly desperate rear-guard action against complaints about the colour - the weathercaster used the word "golden" to describe the light bouncing off those excremental hills, but it wasn't very convincing. Most of those expressing an opinion to the BBC continue to take the view that this gilded isle is crap.

It isn't just the colour that has people worked up either. A member of the Scottish National Party has put down an Early Day Motion protesting at the way that the southern perspective of the graphics has caused Scotland to dwindle in relative terms, and other viewers have moaned that the fly-over effect is inducing vertigo and nausea.

All this, of course, is an entirely predictable expression of the deep conservatism of the British viewing public - but in this case I suspect the dismay at change has been greatly amplified by the nature of the thing being changed. Because although weather forecasts are notionally an attempt to press out into the terrain of the changeable and unpredictable, they actually appeal to people because they're always the same. And their placing in news bulletins, whether by accident or design, is almost pharmaceutically reassuring - a reminder that there are places tranquillizingly insulated from history and human agency. The news scrambles to keep up with the ways in which today was different from yesterday, and then the weather comes along with its soothing confirmation that tomorrow - with some climactic variations - will be much the same as all the days that have preceded it.

And though we might feel a stab of implication or accusation in the latest report on child poverty or bombings in Iraq, when it comes to the weather we know that nothing that happens is our fault, and nothing requires our intervention. Weather reports have the superficial gloss of an information service, but they are in fact rituals - and so it's hardly surprising if people overreact when the liturgy and ceremonial is altered.

The filmography of the weather report is not exactly huge - but those films that do include them make it clear that Hollywood perfectly understands the existential rut which weather forecasters inhabit. In LA Story Steve Martin plays a Californian weatherman who can't even pretend that his job is about managing the unexpected. Like Paula Fisch, Chanel 9's weathergirl on The Fast Show, he has the misfortune to predict weather in a zone of unremitting sunshine - a fact that provokes him to increasing zaniness in his reports and, finally, to pre-recording the next day's weather. Naturally that's the one day LA is hit by a freak cloudburst.

It might be ritual, but rituals have to be properly performed for them to be effective. Bill Murray in Groundhog Day offers an even more thoughtful account of the weatherman's dilemma - doomed to cycle endlessly through the same familiar motions, even before the spell of repetition is laid upon him. And if you watch either film you can understand why the BBC weather forecasters should have responded with such transparent enthusiasm to their new graphical toy. Spending 40 hours a week on the meteorological treadmill, they naturally yearn for change and alteration - and they've had to wait 20 years for this minor jolt of novelty.

The rest of us, on the other hand, cherish the weather's unvarying fixity of style and content, and resent anything that disturbs that. It won't be a problem for long. The BBC might be wise to tweak the colour palette a little - as a concession to our cherished notions of a green and pleasant land - but viewers will quickly adapt to the new style and find its utterly predictable ceremonies just as calming as what went before. Localised thunderstorm, followed by a long period of calm.