Greatest Cities of the World With Griff Rhys Jones, STV Wilderness Explored, BBC4
OVER the next 24 hours, Griff Rhys Jones declared at the start of Greatest Cities of the World, he planned to explore New York. Leaving aside the fact that he was lying through his teeth – there's simply no way all the filming for this programme was done in a day – it was rather an underwhelming claim. Many people watching will have spent rather longer there and even for those who have never been it would hardly be new ground, since on your first visit everything already looks familiar from 1,000 movies and TV shows.
It must be hard to say anything new about one of the most filmed, reported on and visited cities of the world, but Rhys Jones hardly tried. This was a compilation of well-worn scenes and statistics which he recited dutifully. The benches in Central Park measure seven miles end to end; 50,000 tonnes of trash is shifted by garbage collectors every day; New York has 4,493 skyscrapers and it takes a long time to clean all their windows.
This isn't the stuff of a documentary but a school project – does any of that really tell you anything other than that the researchers have diligently done their homework? And his "24 hours" of visits and encounters with New Yorkers didn't reveal much more that you didn't already suspect: there are lots of ethnicities there, and penthouse suites at top hotels are expensive. Sometimes these snippets were so perfunctory that you could practically boil them down to gnomic statements: 'Broadway theatre exists', 'there is busy traffic'.
The nadir came when Rhys Jones, trying for jocularity but sounding only tired, announced: "Those of you who are interested in central heating, and who isn't, might like to know that the Natural History Museum, like a lot of buildings in New York, doesn't actually have its own boiler." It DOESN'T? Gosh! Tell us more, Griff!
A good test of celebrity travelogues is not so much whether it would have been made without them, since so few factual programmes are made otherwise these days, but whether anyone would watch more than five minutes if it were Joe Soap's Greatest Cities Of The World. Mind you, given Rhys Jones's recent series confessing his temper tantrums, I probably wouldn't say that to his face.
Now, Wilderness Explored was more like it in terms of covering new ground, at least featuring a place that most of us haven't visited, the Arctic (unless you have, in which case stop showing off). This was a quietly comprehensive history of the way this once obscure land has been perceived, from dangerous, marginal territory to acknowledgement as central to the planet's survival.
There were some familiar stories, such as the disappearance of the Franklin expedition – recently dramatised in BBC Scotland's Passage: The John Rae Story – and the attempts on the Pole, but they were placed in context of the gradual opening up of the Arctic. Extracts from contemporary accounts, with well-informed commentary from experts, were set to stunning images (and a particularly funny old film of wartime German meteorologists skipping around naked in the snow).
As polar researcher Dr Huw Lewis-Jones pointed out, it's the very blankness of the Arctic that makes it so fascinating, allowing us to project our own visions on to it: "That point where scientific curiosity and imaginations combine."
But just as we've got to know it, it's changing. The polar bear was once an enemy to be conquered – Lord Nelson was popularly claimed to have wrestled one as a teenager – but is now a victim, a symbol of what we could be losing.