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There have been the usual moans about the BBC spending £100,000 on coverage of the Chilean miners.

23 October 2010

12:00 AM

23 October 2010

12:00 AM

There have been the usual moans about the BBC spending £100,000 on coverage of the Chilean miners.

There have been the usual moans about the BBC spending £100,000 on coverage of the Chilean miners. I suppose the figure includes wages that would have been paid whether the people were in South America or Shepherds Bush, and, if accurate (I suspect the real cost was much more), it strikes me as minuscule — around two-thirds of one penny for every person in the country, an astounding bargain.

There are some events which, in Bagehot’s phrase, ‘rivet’ the world, both in his sense of binding us together and in the more modern usage of being utterly fascinating; 9/11 is the most obvious example. Other, slightly lesser occasions include the release of Nelson Mandela and the Royal Wedding. These become the milestones of our lives, an experience shared with people in every corner of the globe. The notion that the BBC should have cut corners in order to save the cost of about ten minutes of peak-time drama is ridiculous. The coverage was superb — far better than the other channels — and it illustrated once again how fortunate we are in this country to have a BBC at all.


Of course, the greatest of all world television occasions was the moon landing of 1969. People still talk about Neil Armstrong’s flub: ‘one small step for man’ instead of ‘a man’. At the time, the landing, and the fact that we could see it live, if in grainy black-and-white, seemed astounding, world-changing. I recall an otherwise sane friend saying that it would mean the end of all war, since earthly rivalries would seem terminally trivial. Now, more than two decades after the last man walked on the moon, going there seems as dated as flared trousers and Slade records. For that reason, the landing was an apt frame for the adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The First Men in the Moon (Tuesday, BBC4) in which a small boy meets an old man at a fair who claims that he visited the moon back in Edward VII’s day.

In the glory days of science fiction all you needed for space travel was a magic anti-gravity material, a box shaped like a bathing hut, and a sturdy tweed suit. (By comparison with Wells’s yarn the average Jules Verne yarn could have served as a Nasa handbook.) The First Men was a great influence on C.S. Lewis — it was meant to be a satire on war and imperialism, though this was missing from the TV show — and also a template for all those Star Trek episodes in which the crew land on planets where the atmosphere is the same as Earth’s and the inhabitants conveniently speak English. The excellent Rory Kinnear was the clean-cut dodgy businessman who gets involved with Mark Gatiss’s potty professor. The various layers of nostalgia – small boy in flannel shorts watches real moon landing, country pubs in which serving wenches say things like ‘Lunnon? I don’t hold with the place’, the evocation of early Doctor Who episodes — were nicely bound together into a package that probably meant more to people my age than to the children at whom I assume it was aimed.

There was more nostalgia in High Society Brides (BBC2, Wednesday), part of the Wonderland series. This followed the lives and fortunes of half a dozen of the ‘girls in pearls’ who still appear on the Country Life equivalent of Page 3. But with more clothes on. It took place in a world that still exists, but only in small pockets, like rare mammals living in a corner of the rain forest. The heir to the Duchy of Bedford hoped to marry Henrietta Tiarks, known as the most beautiful woman in England, but warned her that if she took a part in a film, ‘I could never be your husband.’ Men who planned their marriages thus: ‘She was my choice, and I thought, “There’s no point in fannying around, get on with it!”’ The sad story of the Hon. Catherine Sackville-West, unable to get out of a wedding to a man she didn’t love ‘because the juggernaut was rolling’. On the nuptial night they slept in separate rooms. Some of the gels were now in what used to be called ‘reduced circumstances’ but the programme never gloated. It was a sympathetic look at people whose lives straddled two structures of society, and who found it hard to be entirely at home in either.

Horizon: Is Seeing Believing? (BBC2, Monday) demonstrated how all our senses — sight, hearing, touch, etc. — are linked and can even substitute for each other, such as the young blind man who ‘sees’ with clicking noises, like a human bat. It also demonstrated how our senses tell us what we expect to be told. Sight fails when presented with something it has never formerly seen. I was reminded of politicians, who rarely lie, but who construct a world from what they want to experience, selecting only the facts and statistics that reinforce their view of reality.


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