May's Man Lab stuck in first gear

HISTORIANS centuries from now will be perplexed at how a series featuring three middle-aged men with dodgy hair, criminal taste in clothes, a fondness for casual racism, a phallic fascination for engines and an obsession with the Second World War became BBC TV's most successful export. James May's Man Lab (BBC2), Animal A&E Investigates (TV3)

Yes, I'm talking about Top Gear, which rakes in millions for the BBC in merchandising and overseas sales to 170 countries.

In the meantime, the rest of us can ponder the far more immediate question of whether even Top Gear's global success is enough to justify making absolutely rubbish programmes like James May's Man Lab.

What is it with Top Gear blokes and the word "lab"? Richard Hammond, the small one with the spiky hair and the leather pimp-overcoat, has a children's series called Blast Lab on the BBC (and RTE2).

Man Lab is a lot like a children's programme, except that most children's programmes are nowhere near as childish. It's supposed to be about teaching soft, pampered, over-moisturised modern men the kind of useful skills their fathers and grandfathers used to learn as a matter of course, but which seem to have fallen into neglect.

What it's really about, though, is giving May, a grumpy man-boy who's never outgrown his fixation with Airfix models, Meccano sets and Commando comics, the opportunity to indulge the fantasy of being a beacon of old-fashioned manhood in a world of metrosexuals who'd rather whip up a soufflé and uncork a nice bottle of red than dine on raw fox with a pint of warm bitter.

This, to use a very Top Gear expression, is complete bollocks. May is a graduate who studied music, plays the flute and piano, was a choirboy in his youth and used to work in the civil service. Breathe in the pungent man-scent of that middle-class testosterone!

Much of last night's Man Lab was taken up with May and his drinking buddy, Oz Clarke, orienteering their way across the moorlands of Dartmoor in Devon. In recognition of the fact that watching two men orienteering is a) unbearably tedious and b) about as macho as needlepoint, Man Lab pretended that May and Clarke had escaped from Dartmoor Prison and were being pursued by a posse of trackers.

In between all this nonsense, May indulged in other hairy, manly pursuits including, er, learning to draw faces and, er, remember names of people you've just met.

This last skill, we were told, is vital when you're trying to chat up chicks at a party -- although any self-respecting chick being chatted up by May's mate Clarkson would probably pretend to be a lesbian. Which is nearly as bad as being German.

"Achtung, schweinhund! For you ze review is over! Now cook me some quiche!"

Animal A&E Investigates: Ireland's Secret Puppy Farms was incorrectly advertised by TV3 as The Truth About Ireland's Puppy Farms (how hard can it be to remember the titles of your own programmes?). To be honest, calling it an investigation was a bit of a stretch, since much of the sickening footage of cruelty had already been aired in Animal A&E proper.

For all that, this was a solid, well-made documentary that highlighted some truly scandalous behaviour by unregistered breeders and stupidity by the public.

The statistics were as shocking as the footage. There's been an average increase of 42% in the number of dogs being handed in to pounds. The lack of space means 60,000 a year are put down.

Even more disgraceful, however, is the fact that legislation, introduced by former Environment Minister John Gormley, has been sitting on someone's desk since 2009, awaiting a signature.

James May's Man Lab 1/5 Animal A&E Investigates 3/5