The Mail on Sunday

Dodos and dinosaurs

- Tom Cox

The Dodo’s Guide To Surviving Extinction Sunday, BBC4 Top Gear Sunday, BBC2 The Street Thursday, BBC1 Deep Water Monday, Channel 4

Nature is an awe-inspiring engineer and a master aesthete, but nobody ever came to that conclusion after looking at a dodo. More than three centuries after it last flapped its ineffectua­l wings, it remains extinction’s ultimate icon. If someone told you that the story of the dodo was a hoax, you’d believe them, so cartoonish and prepostero­us is its appearance. However, it was not the most ridiculous creature featured on The Dodo’s Guide To Surviving Extinction, a riveting documentar­y that put forward the case for the absurdity of the human race with an eloquence not normally witnessed beyond the audition stage of The X Factor. The dodo was really only a starting point here: the sardonic lead-in to a fast-moving, brutal visual lecture about an inconvenie­nt truth more shocking than Al Gore’s. We learned that, every day, between 50 and 150 species are being wiped out, received an intimate lesson in the mating problems of the panda and saw the ultimate in lizardskin handbags. As scientists told us the human world had ‘failed’ and was little more than a postscript to the more vital one before it, the impulse to cut up my Nectar card became suffocatin­g. The only thing lacking to demonstrat­e our utter ugliness and smallness as a species was some paparazzi footage of Kate Moss and Pete Doherty interspers­ed with shots of mounted tiger heads.

BBC4 is currently rife with ecological­ly aware programmin­g: even the channel’s latest comedy series, Rob Newman’s patchy The History Of The World Backwards, is in on the act. But The Dodo’s Guide To Surviving Extinction was a decisive cut above, and belonged on prime time.

Ideally, it ought to have been shown on BBC2 straight after Top Gear, whose viewers should not be allowed back within fondling distance of their rear spoilers until they’d watched every apocalypti­c second of it. I’m not sure Top Gear is so different from what it was in 2003, when the current, celebrated Jeremy ClarksonRi­chard Hammond- James May presenter dynamic was first introduced, but it certainly seems it. The world, and public knowledge of the trouble it’s in, has turned in the past half decade, so the show’s pro-irresponsi­bility, pro- fumes ethos stands at a more awkward angle than it once did. You’ve got to appreciate the pith of lines such as ‘The people of Surrey think they need a 4x4 because they live on a lane that sometimes has leaves on it,’ which I suppose is about as close as you get to eco-friendly satire in Clarksonla­nd.

Still, every time Clarkson and his pals go on another of their pointless, gleefully environmen­tally unsound missions, it’s easier to see through to their spiritual nappies. This week’s babyish task involved the trio driving across a giant salt flat in Botswana. Their one concession to Nature was that they didn’t use 4x4s. Nonetheles­s, they took bits off their cars and burned them and left ugly tyre tracks in a previously unspoiled landscape. When Clarkson told May he looked like a ‘gay terrorist’ in his subsafari get-up, I’m sure I saw an ostrich yawn in the background. There’s no denying the winning boysy chemistry of the three of them, but to exhaust-sniffers they’re not mere TV presenters; they’re rock stars. Hammond has even added a rock staresque near-death experience to his CV. But Top Gear’s presenters legitimise recklessne­ss in a more dangerous way than your average heavymetal singer, and at least most rock stars have semi- earned their licence to indulge with a level of musical prowess. Clarkson, Hammond and May are not famous for writing songs. They are famous for staring at cars and driving them at slightly faster- than- normal speeds. Like being exceptiona­lly good at flushing the toilet, both these activities have their pluses, but whether you’d call them skills is very much up for debate. Two programmes this week asked the question: ‘What does a man do when he can’t escape his mistakes?’ In the first, the opening episode of the new series of Jimmy McGovern’s The Street, David Thewlis played a downtrodde­n breadline father who tried to swap lives with his twin brother when the latter choked to death on a sherbet lemon. It sounds comedic, but the topsyturvy emotional dilemmas facing Thewlis as he confronted his ‘sisterin-law’ (ie wife) and ‘nephews’ (ie sons) were expertly, wrenchingl­y conceived. Thewlis was brilliant in a snuffling way, further supporting my long-held suspicion that he could sit in the corner of any drama on British TV doing nothing but making subdued phlegmy noises and still be the best thing in it.

An even more fascinatin­g portrait of a man on the edge was provided by Deep Water, a documentar­y about the roundthe-world yacht race of 1968 and its fraudulent almost-winner Donald Crowhurst. He was an amateur sailor with an Evelyn Waugh hairline, a buffoon manner and a vessel that looked ill-equipped to withstand a trip along the Manchester Ship Canal. He committed suicide in the middle of the Atlantic, and was looked upon as a conman after it was found that he had faked his log to make it look as if he were winning the race. But hindsight and the scarred recollecti­ons of his friends and family depict him more favourably, as a goofily alluring fool who got literally out of his depth. As the amazing story of his mental breakdown and his mission to ‘ create his own God’ was told, a messed-up heroism emerged. I wouldn’t recommend Crowhurst’s behaviour as a blueprint for family men or captains of cruise liners, but if you thought you were observing some kind of eccentric English pluckiness the other week in Top Gear when Clarkson, May and Hammond tried to cross the Channel in customised ‘ boat cars’, watching this would have provided something of a breath of fresh air.

Jaci Stephen is away

 ??  ?? Road to ruin ... Jeremy Clarkson and, left, the Top Gear
crew with their cars in Botswana. Below: A dodo, the icon of
extinction
Road to ruin ... Jeremy Clarkson and, left, the Top Gear crew with their cars in Botswana. Below: A dodo, the icon of extinction
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