Sport on TV: Tall story of spider man is a costume drama

Andrew Tong
Sunday 06 April 2008 00:00 BST

Alain Robert drives his family up the wall. The world's greatest "urban free solo" climber has scaled 80 of the world's tallest buildings without using any equipment, just his hands and feet. He has an arrest sheet as long as his arm, which in his case is very long from all the trauma he puts his muscles and tendons through.

'The Human Spider' (Channel 4, Thursday) showed the 45-year-old Frenchman training by hanging upside down from the ceiling of his bedroom for up to 20 minutes. He had a major wake-up call when he was 19, falling headfirst 20 feet, smashing his wrist, both elbows, pelvis and skull. He fell into a coma, too, and developed epilepsy. Now he has to take drugs to avoid having a fit while he's climbing.

His young daughter told the interviewer that her questions were "stupid", before she had even asked them. Then she posed one: "Are you afraid that your father may fall?" You could see the girl's point. His wife Nicole says with a roll of her eyes: "He used to nag me to stop smoking." Alain replies like a shot: "I told you I was taking risks that could be managed."

Being French and "off the wall", of course he is philosophical. "You feel very much alive because somewhere you feel very much dead," he opines. "I won't write a book about one second, but... kind of." The genesis of his obsession is also typically French. When he was a child, "I was not having my cheese. I left it in my house. My parents were not there so I climbed up my building."

Post 9/11, response times to any threat on a building are fast, and the police are always on hand when he comes down. This takes many forms. In China, after climbing the 88-storey Jin Mau tower in Shanghai dressed in a Spider-Man outfit, he was incarcerated for five days. In Lisbon, he was released after playing a few hands of poker; when he was let out in Moscow, he stank of vodka.

Extreme sports were rather different in Victorian times. In 'The Diets that Time Forgot' (Channel 4, Wednesday), a group of fatties were introduced to the 19th-century revelation of the "great outdoors". This arose from the desire to escape the smog-ridden cities, and the invention of the railways gave them access to the countryside.

First the dieters had to play Hare and Hounds, a paper-chase. Dressed in full crinoline and hoops, it was pretty extreme to them. Then came the advent of cycling, with contraptions such as the penny-farthing which were so far off the ground that it needed someone like Monsieur Robert just to get on them.

Finally there was the Sunlight League, a mass venture into naturism that copied the Ancient Greek approach to sports. Naked table tennis was the order of the day, after which they were appropriately given a couple of plums for lunch. Next week looks as the "great indoors", aka the "enema within". That's one drainpipe Alain Robert wouldn't want to climb up.

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