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Bring On The Giant Rats
Tropic of Capricorn BBC2
14 February 2008
Adventure tourism is all the rage, but good TV needs more than bravado alone.
I used to work with Simon Reeve, presenter of Tropic of Capricorn (Sundays, 8pm). No, that's not quite accurate. What I mean is that I used to work in the same building as him. Long, long ago, when Tony Blair was just another fragrant Labour backbencher and mobile telephones were still the size of car batteries, he and I were trainee reporters at the same broadsheet newspaper.
What this meant in practice, however, was that while I cowered at my desk wondering vaguely if the news editor would like something on equal pay (answer: no), he was striding manfully about the place, a nuclear smuggling exclusive in one hand and Osama Bin Laden's private hotline in the other. I was mostly attached to a cup of canteen coffee; he was mostly attached to the wires of a complex recording device.
Anyway, now he's a rugged - well, semi-rugged - television explorer, and I'm . . . (fill in as you think appropriate here). Television is keen on madcap travel, and has been for ages, for which, I guess, we can blame Michael Palin. The only trouble is that most places have now been "done", and such films are increasingly required to have a twist. Out go the romantic railway journeys and panama hats, and in come worms for dinner, sharpened hazel twigs and khaki jackets with so many pockets, you wonder if Alexander McQueen was involved in their production.
Reeve's style lies somewhere between Palinesque charm and the testosteronic roaring of the kind of TV bloke who is apt to insist that he will only eat raw camel lung if it has been left to mature in the sun for at least a week: in other words, he has perky manners, but he is also very hard. We know that he's hard because he pretends to be a wimp. Real wimps cry and ask for their mummies; he makes jokes about how he hopes the lions will attack his friend's tent first.
I liked Reeve's earlier series: a guide to the "stans" ( Uzbekistan and the rest) and a trip to places, like Somaliland, that don't officially exist. They snuck in to strange global crevices. But this new journey - along the Tropic of Capricorn - feels oddly tired.
In Namibia, where he began his travels (10 February), he met a group of Chinese businessmen; trade between Namibia and China is worth £30bn a year, a fact that was a bit too O-level geography for me. Perhaps it was for him, too, because, at this point, Reeve revealed that he was "struggling to hold on to the purpose of my visit", a thought that came pretty close to my own feelings, even if he attributed his confusion mostly to his new friends having made him get pissed. Look, Namibia is a hot tourist destination right now and the truth is that BBC2 audiences will know a little about it already. Reeve needed to bring more than rice wine and giant sand dunes to the party.
He then crossed into the Kalahari where, in his excitement, he forgot that a journey is not interesting simply by virtue of being hazardous, unless you're Captain Scott, or that climber in Touching the Void. You can have too many wheel-stuck-in-the-sand shots.
A television journey in particular must provide what the posher tourist brochures call "fascinating insights into local culture". There were a couple: the Namibian tribe that had incorporated colonial uniforms into their dress as a way of marking the genocide visited on their people by the Germans; the traditional fortune teller who used a dead animal, insides neatly scooped out, as the cup in which she shook her dice (or, in this case, bones).
But Reeve had an indulgent hour of airtime to fill. It does not help that he doesn't have much of an eye for whimsy. His script - he writes his own - is rather bald, his asides to camera clichéd. He is not a great interviewer. Yet, perhaps, things will perk up in the second episode: a trailer pointed to guns and giant rats. He will come into his own again when there are guns involved. And he'll be more than up to giant rats, what with having spent all those years in a newsroom.
Source: New Statesman