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Display of skill

20 June 2014


NOTHING was going to stop me watching television last Saturday. A treat that comes round at far too long an interval - a glorious display of skill, colour, and movement, the result of months of arduous training and long tradition, an expertise at which our country is an acknowledged world leader, played out on an arena surrounded by huge enthusiastic crowds.

Having made my own domestic preparations, tasty supper and stimulating beverage to hand, I settled down expectantly, proud to belong to a nation united around its TV screens. At last, the moment had arrived: it was time to watch Trooping the Colour Highlights (BBC2, Saturday).

The Queen's birthday parade is an extraordinary spectacle - a combination of absurdity and symbolic profundity. What could be more ludicrous than training our soldiers so that they can walk past the standard of their battalion, first in slow time then in quick, so that, in the heat of battle, they will always recognise their own flag - except that no standard has been borne into conflict for well over a century, or ever will again?

And yet commanders tell us that soldiers trained in this way display a fiercer loyalty and comradeship than any other, behave with greater discipline, and feel a closer link to the Sovereign. It is a curious process, forcing men to march in complex patterns, all individuality suppressed into machine-like conformity until the whole develops its own corporate personality.

Of course, readers of this paper scan these proceedings with a professional eye; for is not what we have here an essentially liturgical rite, exemplar of that crucial process of getting numbers of people on and off stage in the right order, standing in the right place at the right time, neither knocking into each other nor falling over? In other words, it is exactly like the Sunday service.

I am fully aware that a great deal of attention was focused on the heart of the Amazonian rainforest, and last week two contrasting programmes took us thither. In David Beckham into the Unknown (BBC1, Monday of last week), we followed the retired footballer on a motorbike adventure with a few mates, in the jungle, eager to find somewhere in the world where his celebrity would go unrecognised.

All the evidence suggests that he is an nice man, unspoilt by his fame; but the effectiveness of this pleasant programme was undercut by the way in which every native tribesman encountered was asked whether or not he could identify the tattooed stranger. I imagine that the supporting film crew was a bit of a give-away, too.

Far more serious, in the third episode of I Bought a Rainforest (BBC2, Sunday), the professional wildlife photographer Charlie Hamilton-Jones underwent a radical moral crisis. Having bought 100 acres in Peru with the express aim of maintaining its bio-diversity, and thwarting the illegal logging which is destroying it in favour of cattle ranching, he came to know the men he had considered the enemy.

Seeing them as people, and understanding their desperate poverty, effected a remarkable conversion: he now works with them, seeking a sustainable way forward that can accommodate human society and the wild forest.

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