Pop idol turned top boffin Brian Cox doesn’t shy away from the big issues. With programmes such as Wonders of the Solar System, Wonders of Life and Human Universe, Cox, the heir apparent to His Eminence Sir David Attenborough, has dared to dream on a cosmic scale. Are there any limits to his mighty intellect?
In his latest adventure, Forces of Nature (BBC1, Monday), the ambitious prof boldly seeks to illustrate the workings of ‘the underlying laws of nature’. As wistful electronic music tinkled Eno ishly in the background, he assured us, in a metaphysical tone, that ‘the whole universe, the whole of physics, is contained in a snowflake’. Representing the combined effects of gravity, electromagnetism, the nuclear force of atoms and symmetry, the snowflake — no less than a bee, a manatee or even Professor Cox himself — is an index of the building blocks of creation.
Interesting enough, I suppose, if you couldn’t find a more pressing appointment, but, as with many of the BBC’s favourite faces — Lucy Worsley, for instance, or Bettany Hughes — you suspect that the chief objective is to get these chosen ones back on the screen at any price, with the content of the programmes a secondary consideration. If Worsley wanted to make films about darning socks in the regency era or the social history of the cucumber sandwich, well ...she probably already is.
In the case of Professor Cox, with his Jagger esque lips and scallydelic hair, we’re seeing significant signs of Hollywood esque distortion. Forces of Nature is a co production with PBS in the States and France Télévisions, and has clearly been conceived as a multi territory, poly format blockbuster. It looks more like Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar than a mere science documentary, since every thimbleful of scientific erudition has been stirred into a gallon of sumptuous high def travelogue footage across a carefully colour coordinated range of destinations.
At first we encountered Cox trekking across snowy Norway, as children frolicked amid those numinous snowflakes. To explore the theme of gravity, we were thrust into the baking Spanish sun to watch the people of Catalonia assembling themselves into extraordinary human towers while gravity tried to pull them down. Suddenly we were in Nepal, riding with the locals as they scaled the lower slopes of Annapurna to harvest the hives of the Himalayan honey bee (‘the largest honey bee on the planet’). And your point, Professor? That the fascinatingly exact hexagonal honeycombs created by the bees are the most efficient shape in nature and built by these swarms with remarkable minimalist skill? Well, it was all very beautiful to look at but you could learn all this stuff from a quick spin round Wikipedia.
Are there forces of nature that can explain extreme sporting prowess? Serena (BBC2, Sunday) was an 80 minute documentary about the reigning Wimbledon champion Serena Williams. It sketched in a little background — she grew up in Compton, California, before the family moved to Florida so she and sister Venus could attend the Rick Macci Tennis Academy — but mostly concentrated on Serena trying to win all four grand slam tournaments in 2015. Currently, her grand slam count stands at 21, one behind Steffi Graf’s.
Director Ryan White did his best to break up the inevitable litany of ‘Serena wins in two sets’, ‘Serena doesn’t feel very well in Paris and wins in three sets’, ‘Serena had to fight a bit harder here but still won in two sets’ etc., by insinuating his cameras into bedrooms, kitchens and lounges in the star’s comfortable accommodations as she circled the globe. Unfortunately, though perhaps revealingly, this showed us that the life of a travelling tennis professional resembles a kind of expensively upholstered claustrophobia. Blake Neely’s relentless pseudo heroic music sounded like a desperate effort to make everything seem more interesting.
While the cameras had access, they only had access to Serena’s little knot of accomplices, such as Zane (her ‘coordinator’), Robbye (hitting partner), Grant (executive assistant), Patrick Mouratoglu (coach) and Jill Smoller (agent). None of these, obviously, was about to tell us that Serena is a raving prima donna who secretly doses up her opponents with laxatives the night before a match. In fact, we saw zero interaction between Serena and other current players, though there were brief walk ons by Billie Jean King and John McEnroe.
Early in her career Serena used to be a bit of a wild child, ranting at umpires and bitching at opponents, though the racist attitudes of some of the crowds undoubtedly contributed. Today’s 34 year old Serena seemed a slightly wistful figure, who’s aware that despite her still formidable abilities the end is coming fairly soon. She was at her happiest on her 34th birthday, after taking a break from tennis following a shock defeat at the US Open. ‘I’ve put on about 10lbs of pure fat and I’m loving it,’ she chortled, sashaying away from the camera for a celebratory night out.