Saturday 24 August 2019

John Boland: As Ella warned, the inner life of animals is not for the faint-hearted


'Let's have a look at what's inside': Ella and Peter on How Animals Work
'Let's have a look at what's inside': Ella and Peter on How Animals Work

John Boland

Forget Quentin Tarantino and his blood-soaked excesses. The opening episode of How Animals Work (RTÉ1) featured so many stomach-turning eviscerations that it was more like the latest addition to the Saw or Hostel franchise. And all this at the pre-watershed time of 8.30pm.

Mind you, presenter Ella McSweeney had warned us at the outset that there would be "strong dissection scenes" but that didn't prepare me for the plethora of hearts, livers, intestines and other entrails of fish, eels, lizards and snakes that were being exposed by biology professor Peter Wilson.

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This took place on the stage of Smock Alley in Dublin, which had been turned into an operating theatre, with an audience of young people eagerly observing from raked tiers of seats, just as you'd find in any self-respecting medical drama.

And along the way, I did learn quite a bit, from both Ella and Peter, about the rituals, habits and workings of salmon, trout, eels and reptiles, though every time Peter brandished his scalpel and enthusiastically declared "Let's have a look at what's inside" I managed to avert my eyes.

Ella had assured us at the start that no living creatures were harmed during the programme's making but, crikey, their dead bodies were subjected to indignities too forensic for the likes of me. Next week the focus will be on birds, but I'm not sure I'll be up to it.

Less fraught for oversensitive viewers was The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan (BBC2), even though the British comedian of Tamil descent had chosen to visit Zimbabwe for this first episode of his second season of travelogues about overlooked and sometimes dangerous holiday destinations.

Under Robert Mugabe, the former Rhodesia had become, he said, the "basket case of Africa" and now it was struggling to recover from his tyrannical legacy. This programme, which highlighted Zimbabwe's natural beauty and extraordinary wildlife, should help its cause, with the amiable and often very funny though essentially thoughtful Ranganathan declaring at the end that it was both an "amazing" country and "one of the most impressive" he'd ever visited.

Crucial, though, to the programme's success was Chipo Chikara, his guide for the duration, who laughed a lot and very infectiously but who had strong views of her own - as when she took eloquent issue with a white safari guide who chose to defend the colonial legacy of Cecil Rhodes, a figure who's now generally reviled.

This was a quirky and informative film and so, too, was A Fresh Guide to Florence (BBC2), in which veteran New York hip-hop pioneer and film-maker Fab 5 Freddy (real name Fred Brathwaite) rode through the Tuscan city on horseback ("Why not travel around in 15th century style?") and looked at its famous art works.

His language was not that of Andrew Graham-Dixon or other high-minded art critics. The Santa Croce basilica was "mind-blowing", Giotto was an "early Renaissance game-changer" who had been "doing his thing" a hundred years before Michelangelo, while contemporaries had been "dissing" the bapistry bronze doors of Lorenzo Ghiberti, whose response had been "up yours!"

He was especially fascinated by the black characters depicted in Renaissance painting, and he saw the African king in Mantegna's 'Scenes from the Life of Christ' not as "an extra on set" but as a vividly realised individual who was both "my man" and "a brother".

He teased out the social, political and religious reasons for these characters ("part of a campaign to win over Africans" to the Catholic church), and by focusing on such marginal figures, he brought a refreshingly different perspective to these famous paintings. A revelatory film.

There were revelations, too, in Cindy Sherman #untitled (BBC4), not least in confirming the 65-year-old New York photographer as a major artist, whose reinventions of herself over five decades as a series of imagined women (society hostesses, centrefolds, vamps, lonely figures on street corners, historical figures) hauntingly capture both the alienated spirit of the age and women's often perilous place in the male scheme of things.

"I know these women," actress friend and admirer Kim Cattrall said. "These women are everywhere." And indeed they are, as this outstanding profile, with its due attention to the work itself, demonstrated.

Fred Sirieux, who found fame as the engaging French host of Channel 4's First Dates, now presents Remarkable Places to Eat (BBC2) and reveals himself as one of life's enthusiasts.

A maître d' by profession, he brings a winning charm to a series in which he visits cities known for their outstanding restaurants and cafés. This week he was in Edinburgh, accompanied by award-winning English chef Tom Kerridge, who is now based in the Scottish capital and who came across just as exuberantly as Sirieux.

The highlight for the viewer was a visit to The Fishmarket, a fish-and-chipper on the Newhaven shoreline that seemed so inviting I almost felt like booking a flight to Edinburgh there and then.

The Sicily of Inspector Montalbano (BBC4) has always seemed alluring, too. Now in its 12th season, what's astonishing is that, while his colleagues have visibly aged around him, Luca Zingaretti, who's now 57, still looks as he did when he took on the main role 20 years ago.

And the storylines remain just as shaggy-dog in their meanderings and digressions. They're also very male-centred (there are no women cops in Vigata's police station), but the series retains its charm, even if some of the recent scenarios have been both dark and quite brutal, made to seem more so in the dazzling heat.

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