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Breathless approach

Britain's Lost World (BBC1); How the West Was Lost (BBC4); Last of the Dambusters (Five); Dickens's Secret Lover (Channel 4)

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

18 June 2008

12:00 AM

St Kilda, a set of islands off the coast of Scotland uninhabited for 78 years except by around a million seabirds. Suddenly the BBC sends a crack team of exclaimers to this remote and beautiful place. ‘Amazing!’ they cry. ‘Fantastic!’, ‘stunning!’, ‘great!’, ‘breathtaking!’, ‘spectacular!’ Now and again the team try to dredge from their psyches longer phrases, entire formed thoughts. ‘It’s like another world!’, ‘I can’t believe I’m here!’, ‘if you’re into really remote, wild places, this is the ultimate!’ They are moved to something close to poetry. ‘It seems like ghosts are watching us from their abandoned houses, but only the seals have come out to greet us.’ Wandering round the stone cottages and storehouses, they have a pop at profundity: ‘You have to use your imagination to imagine what this settlement looked like.’ Yup, that’s what your imagination is for — imagining things.

Britain’s Lost World (BBC1, Thursday) is beautiful, though I fear that three one-hour episodes might be just a teeny bit too much. Of course we can’t be trusted to enjoy just the pictures and the story. We have to have two celebs — Kate Humble and Dan Snow — plus a celeb-in-the-making, a naturalist called Steve Backshall. Everything must be spelled out for us by these nice if over-exclamatory people. ‘We’re going up to the settlement, to see if we can find out what made the islanders leave!’ one of them exclaims, excitedly. But everyone knows what made the inhabitants go. It’s been public knowledge since the day they left. This is not like cracking the mystery of the Mary Celeste. The human population had dropped to three dozen, they suffered from cold, disease and an appalling seabird-intensive diet. The average St Kildan ate more than 100 fulmars a year. Without batter. No wonder they wanted to go to the mainland where there were gas fires, mashed turnips, and possibly deep-fried Mars Bars.

This ‘come on, gang, let’s find out!’ approach can be deeply annoying. We’re not children, and we’re not impressed by the three little tents the trio sleep in — we’re smart enough to know that there are loads more tents for the inevitably large crew, unless of course they are staying at the St Kilda Radisson, which I doubt. I loved the pictures, but the tone struck me as cheerfully bland and, in the end, patronising. It is another example of the Blue Peterisation of television. At 9 p.m., after the watershed for goodness sake, you don’t need to talk to us as if we were all eight years old.

No one could call Rich Hall patronising. In How the West Was Lost (BBC4, Saturday) he was just plain rude. About us. But even more about his native US. Apparently George Bush lists High Noon as his favourite film, which is strange since it is — we’re often told — an allegory about the cowards who refused to stand up to McCarthyism and HUAC. But, Hall suggested, the posse who won’t join Gary Cooper represented to Bush the countries that wouldn’t join his ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq. Which makes Frank Miller Saddam Hussein, and Grace Kelly — who knows? Tony Blair perhaps. The notion that the western generally represented modern concerns dressed up in crinolines and chaps has been worked over before, though this one had the benefit of Hall’s deeply sardonic commentary: ‘Americans are happy people. Why? Because they own guns. And it’s important to keep Americans happy — they own guns.’

Another well-loved television cliché is the fellow from Bomber Command who goes back to meet the people he bombed. It’s always much the same, yet it’s always very moving. This time it was ‘Johnny’ Johnson in Last of the Dambusters (Five, Tuesday) whose target dam didn’t actually break, which was a shame, since the resulting deluge might actually have shortened the war. But Mr Johnson, now 86, had no regrets about having been a bomber — until, of course, he got out there. ‘I felt quite guilty,’ he said. ‘When you think about the disaster we caused to so many people — it makes you wonder, what the hell do we go to war for?’ Not the deepest thought, though perhaps more complex and multilayered than Edwin Starr’s ‘War! What is it good for? Wurghh! Absolutely! Nuttin’!’ Except for, pace Nicholson Baker, stopping Hitler.

Dickens’s Secret Lover (Channel 4, Monday) was fun, and informative, but it would have worked better if they had tried to relate his long affair with a young actress more closely to his work. Our only concern has to be how it affected what he was writing; everything else is just prurience.

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