Essays: Gorgeous variety |
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Gorgeous variety

AN INTENSIVE letter-answering operation situation mounted in response to an overwhelming readers’ response situation to my remarks last week on the BBC’s excessive use of the word ‘situation’ situation has left me in a state of prostration situation — i.e., knackered.

Only David Attenborough’s miraculous new series Life on Earth (BBC2) has kept me sane. Two episodes have so far been screened. I have seen each of them twice. Slack-jawed with wonder and respect, I keep trying to imagine what it must be like nowadays to be young, inquisitive and faced with programmes as exciting as these. There can’t be the smallest doubt that this series will recruit thousands of new students for the life-sciences. Where was David Attenborough when I was a lad? Being a lad too, I suppose. The difference between us is that he still is.

Fresh-faced and paunchless, Attenborough looks groovy in a wet-suit. Female viewers moan low as he bubbles out of the Pacific with a sea urchin in each hand. Against all the contrary evidence provided by James Burke, Magnus Pyke and Patrick Moore, here is proof that someone can be passionate about science and still look and sound like an ordinary human being.

It is a lucky break that the presenter looks normal, because some of the life-forms he is presenting look as abnormal as the mind can stand. To Attenborough all that lives is beautiful: he possesses, to a high degree, the quality that Einstein called Einfühlung — the intellectual love for the objects of experience. Few who saw it will forget Attenborough’s smile of ecstasy as he stood, some years ago, knee-deep in a conical mound of Borneo bat-poo. Miles underground, with cockroaches swarming all over him and millions of squeaking bats crapping on his head, he was as radiant as Her Majesty at the races.

Some of us are not as good as Attenborough at waxing enthusiastic when vouchsafed a close-up view of a giant clam farting. This happened many fathoms down on the Great Barrier Reef. As Attenborough zeroed in on the clam, it opened its shell a discreet millimetre and cut loose with a muffled social noise, visually detectable as a small cloud of pulverised algae.

Yet on the whole he compels assent. With the aid of film-footage so magnificent that it would have been inconceivable even a decade ago, he sets out to trace the history of life through 2,000 million years. The total effect is one of gorgeous variety. Even the single-cell life-forms reveal themselves to be bursting with ideas for getting about, eating, multiplying, etc. Further up the scale of complexity, the humblest sponge or Medusa is a whole universe of co-ordinated goings-on.

By the time you get to the invertebrates, you practically need a seat-belt, the aesthetic effect is so stunning. Here comes a flatworm rippling through the sea, like a rainbow-edged omelette in a hurry. Molluscs go laughing along in the other direction, like hysterical flying saucers. A transparent prawn looking as if Dürer had drawn it in liquid silver suddenly alters its position, as if he had drawn it twice.

Next week, the insects. I can hardly wait. But in the uproar of enthusiasm which will deservedly greet this series it should not be forgotten that the secret of its success lies just as much in the words as in the pictures. Attenborough has all the resources of technology at his disposal, but the chief attribute he brings to this titanic subject is his own gift for the simple statement that makes complexity intelligible. With him, television becomes the instrument of revelation. He makes me envious of my own children — members of a generation who will grow up with the whole world as their home.

Just as some life-forms are so perfectly adapted that they never need to change, so there are television formats that will be with us until Hell freezes over. Prominent among these is the thriller series set in or around the Mediterranean. The latest example is called The Aphrodite Inheritance (BBC1).

The venue this time is Cyprus. The hero, played by Peter McEnery, is out to avenge his murdered brother and recover the buried treasure. Or it could be that he is out to avenge his murdered treasure and recover the buried brother. The heroine is played by Alexandra Bastedo. Why is she canoodling on the beach with Stefan Gryff, who in these series usually plays the police chief, but on this occasion is appearing as Absolotl Preposteros, taciturn leader of the bad-shave heavies? Is she working under cover? She looks as if she is acting under water, but there is a good reason for that.

The good reason is the dialogue, which she and the hero are obliged to foist on each other in long, despairing interchanges. ‘There’s a lot of things I don’t understand. Your part in this, for instance.’ ‘All we have to find out is who took the money and where it is now.’ ‘But who? And why?’ ‘It doesn’t make sense.’ ‘Unless...’ ‘Someone is using you.’ ‘The question is who? And why?’ ‘There must be someone here on Cyprus we can trust.’

But there is no one here on Cyprus they can trust, with the sole exception of the script-writer. They can trust him to keep on coming up with lines that mention Cyprus, so that nobody in the audience will fall prey to the delusion that the series is set in Dagenham.

In another part of the same plot, a man is on the run. One of the bad-shave heavies has shot him, which must be almost as painful as the bouzouki music yammering away on the sound-track. Consolation shows up in the form of Maria, the irrepressible young olive-plucker who is the proud owner of the only uplift bra here in Cyprus.

‘Eet ees a good bed, eh?’ Maria hisses irrepressibly, throwing him on it. Apparently eet ees. But she, too, is after the treasure. Could she be working under cover? Bouzoukis plunk suggestively. Outside in the cobbled courtyard, the taxi-driver, Nikos Haknikaragos, has died of boredom.

‘It was founded ah. In 1800.’ Thus Sir Huw Wheldon discussing The Library of Congress (BBC2), which has to find room for 7,000 new books every working day. One institution chumming up to another, Sir Huw was on top form. It was highly ah. Enjoyable.

Once in a Lifetime (Yorkshire) was all about Iain Brodie, who is raising wolves in order to pit himself against them in ‘personal confrontation.’ To show how well he gets on with wolves, Ian went into the cage with a she-wolf called Sylvia. ‘Take it easy, Sylvia. Take it easy! AAGH! Ooh, Christ! Barry, I must have help!’ It didn’t augur too well for the forthcoming personal confrontation.

The Observer, 28th January 1979

[ A shorter version of this piece appears in The Crystal Bucket ]