Spiral Notebook: TV sob stories

By Giles Broadbent on June 7, 2009 12:02 PM |


Giles Broadbent on TV's new-found craze - the manipulative narrative

OK, so I watched the final of Britain's Got Talent. Mostly. I saw the acts then turned down the sound on the bits in between.

Not that I'm overtly cynical about the narrative segments.

Quite the reverse, I'm an absolute sucker for a sob story which means an evening watching BGT is akin to playing Kitten Spartacus. (You know how it goes - which one will be slowly crucified, which one gets to die quickly by the sword.)

"Narrative" is the watchword and the saviour of BGT, The X Factor et al. In fact, narrative has been yanked wholesale from the fiction department and dripfed into every form of factual television.

I was amazed by its deployment in the BBC's documentary Uncovering Our Earliest Ancestors: The Link. This programme focused on a 47-million-year-old lemur-like fossil, a revolutionary discovery which represented a moment in time when primates divided into lemurs on one side and apes and humans on the other.

A staggering find in any circumstances, made all the more unlikely by the completeness of the fossil.

But somehow this revelation was too much science and not enough Dr Who for the BBC and, in particular, David Attenborough, who wrote the script.

The death of this young lemur-type thing - which was named Ida so we could bond with her - was described as a "tragedy" while the manner of her parting was laid out, without a shred of evidence, in a manner designed to tell a story to tax the tissue box.

Evidence shows that she did break her wrist. It was "a tragic surprise" for paleontologists, (presumably greater than the tragic surprise that they found themselves to be paleontologists).

However, nothing save Dickensian sentimentality could have led Attenborough to add "maybe she was dropped by her mother" as if the babe had been failed by some form of Cenozoic Haringey Council.

After the broken wrist, Ida was forced from the trees to forage by the edge of the lake... "And tragically for the injured Ida [the volcanic gases] played a crucial role in her demise."

"She was thirsty," said one scientist unequivocally, "so she went to the shore for a drink not realising that this was a bad day for her."

In other words: Ida, you are the weakest (missing) link. Goodbye.