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Seasonal diary

11 October 2013


A COUNTRY churchyard is, of course, set up for burying; but in the first magnificent episode of The Great British Year (BBC1, Wednesdays) the sexton was a red squirrel, hiding the acorns that would see it through the winter. What I have never seen before is the extraordinary sleight-of-paw that it employs to fool all the other watching squirrels.

Sequence after sequence was jaw-dropping in its depiction of our native flora and fauna. This island's size, its format, and the Gulf Stream all create, we were told, a unique range of weather and seasons, and our wildlife has evolved an equally diverse variety.

The detail and colour of the images is wondrous, darting from landscape aerial shots to microscopic close-ups of bugs and beetles. The filming induces something of a sensory overload - almost nothing is shown in real time: it is either slowed down or in speeded-up time-lapse, showing us processes invisible to the naked eye.

Most spectacular of all, perhaps, was the night-time life-and-death drama played out on a disused airfield, when thermal imaging showed us a mother hare hoping desperately that neither the fox nor badger would scent her leveret concealed in the grass.

The largest number of professional cameramen ever employed on a wildlife series was joined by many amateurs to create this spectacular diary of the changing year. Only the commentary, a fine example of the expression of the bleeding obvious, adds a jarring note. Theologically speaking, this is a wonderful depiction of the sheer plenitude and extravagance of creation. I hope that future episodes may add just something of a darker hue: we saw everything make it through the sternest winter - nothing starved to death, and all prey was dispatched off-screen.

The Wrong Mans (BBC2, Tuesdays) is a marvellously absurd comedy thriller about a pair of incompetents caught up in a web of crime and violence. The plot has a fine ability to wrongfoot not just the central characters, but also the viewers: just when we think we can see where it is going, the story darts off in another direction.

James Corden's Phil is an especially rich creation, a hopeless fantasist whose hold on reality hangs by the slenderest thread. The mayhem in which he is caught up is what he has always longed for: his reactions, of course, merely land them deeper and deeper in trouble.

The clever thing is that it presents a genuine critique of the serious-thriller genre: this comic version shows up the absurdity of its posturings. Perhaps farce is, after all, closer to reality.

The title of Pain, Pus and Poison (BBC4, Thursdays), about the development of pain-killing drugs, sets out clearly the reality it seeks to explore. Dr Michael Mosley uses himself as a guinea pig to demonstrate successive attempts to suppress pain. Most 19th-century tonics derived from opium or cocaine - both of them addictive and lethal; eventually, nitrous oxide offered pain-free surgery.

But moralists were unsure; surely to suffer pain was part of the divine plan, essential to God's good providence for his creation? Who were we to seek to escape it?

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