LIFE BBC1 Monday, 9pm PRESCOTT: THE NORTH/SOUTH DIVIDE BBC2 Wednesday, 9pm SYNTH BRITANNIA BBC4 Friday, 9pm
SIR David Attenborough is one of TV's Great Uncriticisables, so right now I'm feeling a bit like a crabeater seal or a chinstrap penguin. Slithering about on the ice floes of Antarctica, these creatures must take a big gulp and dive in. They're looking for food, hoping not to become lunch themselves, whereas I'm trying to persuade you that Life isn't shaping up to be the best of the whispering, blue-shirted naturalist. Far from it.
Attenborough introduced it as a series about the "spectacular and extraordinary strategies" involved in staying alive. Of course, wildlife shows require not staying alive just as nature does. I admit I'm a bit of a softie when it comes to savage nature but can just about stay watching when it's part of the whole story of a food chain or a country's animal population. Jumping from Florida to Kenya to Madagascar to Antarctica in the opening minutes, Life shocked in its easy portrayal of death.
The crabeater seal survived an encounter with killer whales by hugging up tight to a fast-reducing clump of ice – but when the soundtrack went all doomy you just knew the chinstrap penguin wasn't going to be so lucky. "The leopard seal efficiently flays the chick," said Sir David, "tearing off a small piece with each throw." Yes, thanks, I got that.
The strawberry poison arrow frog, lugging its tiny tadpoles one by one up a giant tree, provided the heroics in the first episode, while the giant Pacific octopus starving herself to nurture 100,000 eggs supplied the selfless love. Gobsmacking photography as usual, but while Life isn't quite as gratuitous as the kind of nature programme a satellite channel might call Corky Flays Happy Feet, it does have the feel of a greatest hits: a biggest bites show banged together in time for a splurge of Christmas spin-offs.
Fish were again in peril in Prescott: The North/South Divide. Admittedly they were already battered and fried, but John Prescott munching into them on his travels through divided England still made for scary telly. The former Labour deputy leader, possibly under the impression that documentaries must be easy if Michael Portillo can make so many, was investigating why northerners are fatter and poorer, but friendlier and happier than their friends in the south. With his wife Pauline along for the ride, he first tilted the Jag towards Liverpool. Before the fish suppers got to him, old cine film revealed a slim and dashing ship's waiter. The 'pool is being regenerated, but not in the district of Kensington, where an out-of-work civil engineer warned them to steer clear of the sofa as the springs had long gone.
Prezza plonked himself down and I wasn't sure he was going to get back up. This kind of summed him up in what was a disappointing programme. He got too comfortable too quickly, assumed the show could be carried by bluff charm alone, resorted to clich about class and, surprisingly for such an aggressive northerner, gave the southern pontificator Brian Sewell far too easy a time after he'd expressed the dear hope that the north would be hit by a plague.
That seemed to be Prescott back in deferential mode for Cunard, but at the end he reserved the right to continue being chippy about the south. And to have chips with everything else, presumably.
There was a hungry crocodile on Synth Britannia, in archive footage from the late 1970s of a nightclub called Croc's in Basildon, Essex. Depeche Mode, one of the pop acts who dared to imagine a future without guitars or drums, used to hang out in Croc's and they remembered it as "quite a sorry-looking animal, but at least it was alive".
This was a terrific little film about pale, skinny boys from high-rise towns with isometric hair who were in thrall to JG Ballard, Doctor Who and synthesisers, especially the knob which replicated the sound of a dropped forge or a steam hammer.
Every week Depeche Mode's Vince Clarke saved up 29.70 of his 30 yoghurt-factory wage to buy his first synth. Andy McCluskey of Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark got his mail order from his mum's catalogue. Bernard Sumner of Joy Division took the DIY option outlined in the Electronics Today mag.
The music was cold and klangy and, early on, the synth boys (and androgynous Annie Lennox) had to huddle together for warmth as the winds of scorn whistled through their tower blocks. The Musicians' Union tried to ban Gary Numan and, according to McCluskey, the standard response was that "we were not rock 'n' roll, not honest, not manly – not British". Little wonder they took their chances with the Croc's croc.
The best thing about this programme, though, were the glimpses it afforded of two absolute legends from my telly youth. David Nixon, master magician, demonstrated how to play the Mellotron, and Gabrielle Drake brought serious glamour to urban alienation in the video for Numan's Cars. She was, of course, star of The Brothers, who pulled off the near-impossible trick of making a drama about road haulage sexy.
This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday on 18 October 2009