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Riotous ride

Lost Land of the Jaguar (BBC1); House of Saddam (BBC2); The Kevin Bishop Show (Channel 4)

30 July 2008

12:00 AM

30 July 2008

12:00 AM

A three-part series called Expedition Guyana was hurriedly retitled Lost Land of the Jaguar (BBC1, Wednesday) possibly in the hopes that viewers might think it was a spin-off from Top Gear, more likely because a BBC suit suddenly realised that the name ‘Guyana’ wouldn’t pull in viewers. No doubt someone else wanted to call it Lost Land of the Jaguar Celebrity Makeover, but a compromise was reached.

Thank goodness, because this really was terrific. At first I suspected it would be just another hectic, ‘Hey, gang, follow me into the jungle!’ BBC documentary in which the mere subject takes second place to the breathless presenters. And it started that way. ‘Guyana is the size of Great Britain, and has the population of Liverpool!’ someone enthused, and I thought, ‘What the hell are they doing there?’ But it got much better. For a start, our guides were experts who knew what they were talking about, rather than superannuated soap stars and Blue Peter presenters. The demented eagerness of the true aficionado makes for compelling television, so that when someone burbles excitedly, ‘They’re the biggest otters in the world!’, instead of thinking, ‘Well, some otter has to be’ you actually want to see the things. (They looked much like ordinary otters, only bigger.)

‘Justine is the canopy specialist,’ said someone else, which I misheard as canapé specialist, and imagined her sitting hundreds of feet up a tree, serving howler monkeys and macaws with a selection of mini-caesars and satays with dipping sauce. The star was the oldest member of the team, George McGavin, the entomologist, who crawled into a dead tree looking for insects and came out with so many scarlet bites dotting his back that an astrologer could have told his fortune.

The most exciting scenes came when Steve Backshall lowered himself down the side of the 720ft Kaieteur Falls, and having reached the bottom had to stay there, even though a tropical storm came over. It must be possible to get wetter, but not so very wet for so very long. And we saw a jaguar, if briefly. It is rare for a television critic to want to see the rest of a series, but I’ll certainly watch this.

And the rest of House of Saddam, which also had an unpromising start. By the end of episode one (BBC2, Wednesday) I was hooked. It’s a combination of a soap in the American style (think Dallas and Dynasty — fabulous wealth, gorgeous women, thoroughly evil men) and a Greek tragedy. The fact that when we see Saddam at the height of his evil pomp we have in our minds the frightened old hobo winkled out of his hole, and the tyrant shambling to his botched execution, only heightens our involvement, the sense of horror and pity.

The appeal of J.R. Ewing was that he always went one step further than anyone might imagine. He had to get worse in order to maintain the dramatic momentum. For Saddam to decide that, on balance, he ought not to execute his best friend would be as pointless as J.R. thinking he had been a little harsh on Cliff Barnes. Saddam played out his life as a tragic hero composed of terrible flaws and nothing else; the difference was that the extras in his drama didn’t go home to lick their wounds, but were shot with a single bullet, up against a wall.

There are faults — a little too much clunky filling in of the back story (but then how else could they do it?) and some obvious scenes — Saddam symbolically washing his hands after having all possible rivals murdered — which should have been lost. (It is so easy nowadays — you just punch a few buttons on the computer. You don’t actually have to drop film on the cutting-room floor any more.) But overall this was a very classy production. It might even give some opponents of the war pause for thought.

The Kevin Bishop Show (Channel 4, Friday) is billed as going beyond bad taste, which I suppose it sort of does, though it’s really another TV show about TV for TV fans. A lot of the sketches fell flat, but there were enough that worked to keep me giggling happily: Harry Hill in his doctor days, diagnosing a patient in his comedy persona, an incredibly rude scene about ‘Sir’ Richard Branson, which might console some travellers on his railway, a Health and Safety official running a check on a suicide bomber, and Stephen Hawking as a benefit cheat. We can put up with a lot of rough for a handful of diamonds.

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