Alistair McGowan Goes Wild with Rhinos,
Invading Iraq: How Britain and America Got It wrong,
Channel 4 Saturday
It was the formula, as usual. Take a household name (though not one so big as to bust the budget), throw in a breathtaking landscape, bung in a good cause. And hey presto! - a ready-mix TV wildlife show. It helps if the well-known household name is a character, or five. Hence on Alistair McGowan Goes Wild with Rhinos they gave him a stretch of Kenyan bush, a short-trousered guide, a 4WD and pointed him straight at the jaws of death.
Alas, the jaws of death, in the shape of a pair of dusty, beat-up rhino, merely yawned - a common reaction to McGowan’s attempts to impersonate "personalities" even more famous (and therefore for programmes such as this, more unaffordable) than himself.
While the brace of rhino - gravely endangered - displayed indifference, McGowan "did" irritating versions of Uri Geller, David Beckham, Billy Connolly and Stuart Hall. Perhaps this was merely a sign of nerves, for in truth the title of the show should have been Alistair McGowan Goes Rigid with Fear at the Thought of Sleeping on Un-ironed Sheets. "I don’t do travel", was his message. He hadn’t slept on the ten-hour flight from Heathrow to Kenya. Scared of flying, scared of tsetse fly, scared of buffalo, Alistair knew he would soon be hallucinating a lion. No sooner had you thought this than two turned up, perhaps attracted by his whimper.
But what was the point of sending a C-list celeb, already so wet he could have impersonated a watering hole, all that way to soil his Y-fronts? Conservation and education were the answer - or the pretext.
McGowan , it seemed, was supposedly there to release two white rhino into the wild of the Masai plains. This first entailed capturing the said rhino and then tagging them. Disinclined to assist their own capture the surly rhino promised a fight. "If we do get a charge, it’s up a tree," said the bloke in charge, as they set out on foot. Which was fine, in theory, but where were the trees? The tallest thing there was McGowan himself. With arms aloft and waving his bush hat he might have resembled an umbrella tree in the wind. But would anyone climb him? It was one impersonation he hadn’t practiced.
A lot of drugs were consumed on the show - but only by rhino being anaesthetised by darts. A lot of music was played - like an old Daktari soundtrack drumming up a frenzy. And far too much was seen of McGowan, who cowered inside the jeep while the others hit the trail on foot. He was superfluous. In fact, he got in the way. A case of the BBC sexing-up? Or dumbing-down? In the end I felt sorry for McGowan, a likeable bloke in a nasty fix. With the finest TV natural history department in the world at its beck and call, the Beeb should just get on with doing this stuff for real.
Channel 4 expended two hours on something called Invading Iraq: How Britain and America Got It Wrong. It was remarkably enlightening and instructive in that it interviewed battle commanders and regular soldiers from the Coalition forces and from the Iraqi conscripted army. In addition, the civilian population - mainly Baghdadis - had their say, telling harrowing tales of the loss of their innocent loved ones. Such scenes were moving beyond expression. One man was caught in numb devastation having lost everything during a bombing attack, "My family they all died here," he said. "Only I am left." This hadn’t been the intention, perhaps, of the American marines, one of whose officers had informed them: "If we gotta rubble everything, that’s what we’ll do." But it was inevitably the outcome of the frenzied heat of battle, and of targeting the wrong buildings. Which raised the programme’s central question - was the Coalition’s intelligence information up to scratch? This goes to the heart of the "Iraq dossier", but it also governed a series of miscalculations during the earliest weeks of invasion. One Pentagon official baldly admitted a series of gaffes based on bad intelligence - or deliberate misinformation. Also clarified was the scale of the British achievement in taking Basra with "the loss of three British lives and the lightest casualties in any operation that has ever taken place".
Most remarkable was the revelation that it was Saddam Hussein’s decision (against advice) to switch his army north of Baghdad, instead of south, that led to the speed of his forces’ defeat. By which tactic - inadvertently, ironically - he saved many thousands of lives.