Wednesday, September 09, 2009

No second chances

As I type these words, I'm listening to the first episode of a 1989 radio series. It's on radio and it's 20 years later, but the series is called “Last Chance to See...” Even more ironically, the BBC are also showing a new TV version, retracing the steps of the radio series and which I've been eagerly anticipating since I first heard mention of it in January.

As I said then,
“The Observer sent [Douglas Adams] and a zoologist, Mark Carwardine, to Madagascar to write a Sunday supplement feature of the endangered aye-aye. Adams had such a nice time that (when he'd finished his commitments to Dirk Gently) he and Cawardine then swanned off round the world writing up other endangered species. There was a Radio 4 series, apparently a CD-rom and a book - my favourite of all Adams' efforts.”
Stephen Fry takes the tall, wordy, clumsy place of the late Douglas Adams. Nicely, he was living in Adams' house while Adams made the original trip.

Adams almost drowned slipping off an island in the original version, and Fry doesn't manage much better. But it manages to mix the new style of documentary on TV, where some Know-Nothing Celeb goes out to Discover Something, with the old-skool method (looked down upon by idiots) where the presenter is a bit of an expert already and has Something to Tell Us.

Carwardine is a dryly funny, enthusiastic native guide and there's a nice bit of intercutting of our two presenters' video diaries where they both worry the other will think them stupid. Between them, it's like a day-trip with two nerdy boys, teasing each other about urban myths and practicalities, and what happens if you pee in a particular lake.

The radio version had wry footnotes read by Peter Jones, as he'd done in Adams' Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. In the TV version we get Stephen Fry (who took Jones' part in the movie of Hitch-Hiker) and some graphics that suggest the ecosystem is all made of clockwork. The diddle-ow(g)! chord that precedes these bits sounds a bit like the diddle-ow(g)! from the Eagles' “Journey of the Sorcerer”, also the theme tune to Hitch-Hiker.

But more than that, Hitch-Hiker delighted in skewering our perspectives of our relative unimportance and ignorance about the universe around us. “Last Chance to See...” does something similar, but it counts the awful cost of our stupidity – and it's all real. It is, as I said before,
“amiably, compellingly harrowing. There aren't many other books like that.”
As with the original, the joy is not just in them poking their noses at rare species, but in what they spot along the way. Adams has a superb way with analogy that can wholly change how you see how things work. This, too, has asides where Carwardine goes to look at a snake in a tree or warns of vampire bats. In just making the practicalities of getting to see the creatures part of the story, it suggests a complexity of territory, teeming with competing interests and needs. Man and animals and economics and everything co-mingle, spin off each other, a rich density of co-dependent stuff.

It's also got a serious message about the industrial scale destruction of habitat and whole species, and I'm interested to see what the series will say about What Can Be Done. But, one episode in, this is superb.

I'm also dead excited about the start of Derren Brown's new set of events, which begins later this evening with him predicting the Lottery numbers. I've been hooked by Brown's antics since earlier this year, and blogged about his book.

And, speaking of documentaries, I also really enjoyed A Portrait of Scotland, in which Peter Capaldi traced the particular Scottishness of the history of portraiture and the particular portraitness of the history of Scotland. Not really a subject I knew much about before, which is what made the programme so appealing.

It covered a lot of ground at a steady, even pace, full of detail and insight. It also gave a nice portrait of its presenter – losing his glasses, discussing his own past and asking smart questions about the paintings. Capaldi's passion for the subject and his technical skill in drawing and the techniques involved in painting took me completely by surprise – I thought he'd be one of these Know-Nothing Celebs but he turned out to have Something to Tell Us.

This unexpected second skill is what the French refer to us Le Violon d'Ingres – because the great painter was also a mean fiddler, which seems very unfair to us ordinary mortals. I'd like to think that there was some kind of trick to it, that perhaps it's all down to Capaldi having appeared in two things written by my chum James Moran.

Perhaps I, too, could seem all clever if I'd only acted for James....


Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed A Portrait of Scotland. It made me want to marry Peter Capaldi and move to Edinburgh. Impossible, and yet slightly more realistic than my reaction to the last BBC documentary I watched, after which I wanted to marry James May and live on the moon.

Oh, and I've met Derren Brown. So nyeh.

0tralala said...

I am dead envious. But don't want to marry any of them.