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Hostile Environment's a real jewel

"I NEVER thought I'd find myself in the middle of the jungle in a Hi-Ace," said actor Liam Cunningham, as said vehicle rumbled along a dirt road in the two-part documentary Hostile Environment.

As the driver swerved around potholes the size of lunar craters, Cunningham looked nervous. Actually, scratch that. He looked bloody terrified, and who could blame him? He was on his way to a diamond mine in Liberia in West Africa, which, conversely, is one of the most diamond-rich places on earth, but also one of the most deprived and lawless.

On a league table of deprivation, Liberia ranks 167th in a field of 169.

In terms of countries where visitors are likely to get their heads shot off, it sits much higher up the list.

Cunningham was in the company of a Corkman called Paul Butler, an ex-Irish Army Ranger who owns a private security firm based in the South of France. He and his highly-trained operatives are paid large amounts of money to protect "high net worth individuals", including a lot of movie stars, footballers and their wives.

Cunningham had earlier met Butler and a few of his team, who wore balaclavas to protect their anonymity, at a shooting range in Cannes. Butler, however, is not so shy and retiring. Stocky, with a battered nose and hard eyes that suggest you don't want to mess with him, he's like something from a Frederick Forsyth novel and clearly revels in his image and mystique.

Protecting the rich pays well (£10,000, or ¤7,800, a job was mentioned) but it's only the tip of a lucrative iceberg.

The real money for Butler and his associates lies in the diamond-studded soil of Liberia -- or rather in the pockets of the corporations ruthlessly exploiting it.

The trade in blood diamonds allowed monstrous dictator Charles Taylor to impose a reign of terror on Liberia. But in 2007, with Taylor banged up and awaiting trial for war crimes, the UN lifted trade sanctions.

Butler acquired a government-approved diamond licence.

His job is to source and verify diamonds, protect the client on the ground, and make sure that both they and their purchases get safely out of the country.

Though it's a legitimate business, it's dangerous work, conducted entirely in cash and, as we soon discovered, shrouded in secrecy. Butler had arranged for the actor and crew to tag along, in a separate car, during a trip to a mine to inspect and collect some wares.

At some point, though, Butler decided some things were best kept from the prying eye of the camera. His car split sharply away from the convoy, leaving Cunningham and Co essentially stranded.

Fifty dollars secured the services of the Hi-Ace man, who brought Cunningham to a diamond mine.

It wasn't what he'd expected: a poor shanty village where shabbily dressed men scrabbled in the ground, extracting rough diamonds they'd then sell for a fraction of their true value.

By the time the stones had been cut and polished in the world's diamond houses, they'd be worth 10 times more again.

Cunningham was appalled by the poverty and exploitation, and even more appalled when Butler, who eventually reappeared with a bag full of merchandise strapped around his waist, bizarrely suggested that the miners could well be squirreling away a fortune of their own.

"People like Paul protect interests, not rights," Cunningham concluded. Next week he's in Somalia on the trail of pirates.

It's been a frightening (for me, anyway) 13 years since comedian Jasper Carrott last appeared on the BBC.

He returned in The One Jasper Carrott, the second of three programmes featuring veteran comedians (Lenny Henry was last week, Griff Rhys Jones next).

There was enough in his stand-up -- or rather sit-on-a-stool -- routine to suggest a series might be in order.

I enjoyed his take on how his children like to send him on holiday: "They keep sending me to Switzerland. Hotel Dignitas. They found it on Lastminute.com."