Dara's Club is top of the class

dara o briain's science club (bbc2) the gathering: homeward bound (rte1)

Pat Stacey

"Is sex efficient, is it the best we could have done?" wondered Dara O Briain on Dara O Briain's Science Club. Mmm, I would think it depends on how you're doing it, how often you're doing it and who you're doing it with, but the short answer seems to be No, it's not.

"Women waste their time copying their genes," said Professor Steve Jones, one of the world's foremost geneticists and, according to O Briain, "an expert on the sex life of snails". "If there had been a Creator," continued the professor, "we wouldn't have sex." I bet Richard Dawkins is happy about that. I know I sure am.

Under normal circumstances comedians and science programmes should be kept as far away from one another as possible, but I'm prepared to make an exception for Dara O Briain. He's got a degree in maths and theoretical physics, which means he knows stuff. He should be called Dara O Brain.

After watching the first episode of Science Club, which is lively and light-hearted but, crucially, never insultingly lightweight, you were left feeling you'd not just been entertained, you'd also learned a few things.

Such as how, without the bicycle, we'd probably all look like the inbred hillbillies in Deliverance. The invention of the wheel may have been the big, ahem, turning point for humans, yet it was the creation of the bike that allowed us to move over great distances fairly efficiently, meaning we didn't always have to mate with the boy or girl next door.

We did, however, enthusiastically mate with Neanderthals until about 300,000 years ago, which prompted one of the series' roving reporters, Dara's fellow comedian Ed Byrne, to have his DNA tested for residual traces of a sloped forehead and dragging knuckles. Ed turns out to be 3.2% Neanderthal, while Dara is 3.0%.

One shudders to think what Roy 'Chubby' Brown's reading would be.

Science Club won't appeal to people who think science programmes should be the exclusive preserve of men with bad tweed jackets and self-administered haircuts, but it does what it sets out to -- entertain and inform, which was the BBC's original remit, let's not forget -- quite brilliantly.

The presence of a studio audience standing in the round shudders up unfortunate comparisons with Top Gear, but the serious issues (such as why the mapping of the human genome hasn't yet delivered the hoped-for medical breakthroughs) are evenly balanced with larky experiments (for instance, mixing saliva samples with 88% proof vodka to make a DNA cocktail).

Oh, and thanks to Science Club I now know about a man called Lazzaro Spallanzani (I had to look up the spelling), who proved the importance of sperm in the reproductive process by fitting frogs with little leak-proof trousers -- although it's not an image I want hopping around in my head forever.

Watching the final episode of The Gathering: Homeward Bound it was difficult to disagree with Gabriel Byrne's assessment of The Gathering -- a tourism initiative to lure Irish emigrants, their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and anyone who happened to spill a drink on the floor of some Paddywhack pub on the far side of the world to Ireland next year -- as a cynical scam to shake down the diaspora.

It's notable that of the six celebrities who took part in the series, two (Fionnula Flanagan and Brendan Grace) have lived and worked in America for decades, and one (dancer Jean Butler) was born in New York and didn't set foot in Ireland until she was 17.

The series has been largely cringe-inducing, but Flanagan, the most affectedly thespian of thespians, added a new ingredient to this lumpy Irish stew: pretentious twaddle.

Roaming, misty-eyed, around her "spiritual home" of Galway, Flanagan declared, "If you don't know how you feel, you don't know who you are." Well begorrah and begob!

dara o briain's science club HHHHI the gathering: homeward bound HIIII