Sunday, 5 August 2012

Scotsman TV Preview: Saturday 4th August 2012

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 4th August 2012.

Thursday, Channel 4, 10pm

Monday, Channel 4, 11:05pm

Monday, Channel 4, 11:40pm

Paul Whitelaw

I'm sure we can all agree that one of the last things you ever want to hear a local newsreader say is, “STAY INSIDE!” But that's precisely what the good people of Zanesville, Ohio were instructed to do last year, when a sprawling group of wild carnivores, including lions, leopards, tigers and bears, ran amok in their sleepy community.

This formidable menagerie belonged to local nuisance Terry Thompson, a thrill-seeking Vietnam veteran who took advantage of state laws allowing unrestricted ownership of exotic animals. You may recall a recent Louis Theroux documentary in which he visited several, at a push, well-meaning bozos who've figured that the ideal home for huge, proud African lions is in a cramped cage in their garden. The clumsily titled AMERICA'S ANIMAL HOARDER: TERROR AT THE ZOO – TRUE STORIES might be viewed as a nightmarish addendum to that programme, in which the cruelty, madness and dangers of keeping these creatures as pets is taken to its most severe extreme.    

However, despite the serious nature of the incident, this melodramatic account is not without its moments of bizarre humour. The recordings of police radio announcements - “We got a bear on the interstate” etc. - are pure Chris Morris, and the folksy understatement of the locals makes the whole thing feel like a deranged Frank Capra film. I particularly enjoyed the implacable police chief who dryly reveals that he first realised something was wrong after receiving a call from a woman complaining that a camel was eating her property.

And yet, offbeat detours aside, this is an undeniably dispiriting tale in which, despite there being no human casualties, almost all of Thompson's animals ended up dead. The shoot-to-kill tactics of the police and special response unit were heavily criticised at the time, but the programme makes it abundantly clear that none of them took any pleasure in their duties. A shortage of tranquillizer rifles left them with no choice but to massacre these healthy mammals in a deafening hail of bullets that haunts them to this day. One hardened officer can barely get through his recollections without breaking down in tears.

How did Thompson's animals manage to escape? That's a particularly disturbing yet ultimately mysterious twist that I'll leave you to ponder for yourself. But you'll be left in no doubt that it was a tragic accident waiting to happen. And despite the often shoddy and repetitive nature of this relentlessly unsubtle documentary, it maintains interest thanks to the sheer, magnetic strangeness of the central story.

Also, watch out for the most inadvertently hilarious closing caption in the history of documentary filmmaking.

Despite moaning in these very pages recently about the cruel, tasteless mendacity of Channel 4's factual entertainment output, it would be unfair to suggest that everything they do is without merit. The sturdy True Stories strand, for instance, showcases some of the best new documentaries from around the world (not that the aforementioned programme honours that brief), and their Coming Up series is the UK's only ongoing forum for short standalone dramas written and directed by TV newcomers.

Granted, 4 hardly goes out of its way to promote these commendable strands or, in the case of the latter, air them in anything other than graveyard slots, but at least they're out there.

The latest entrant, COMING UP: POSTCODE LOTTERY, is a poignant drama starring the great Con O'Neill as Jed, a conflicted man with terminal cancer who enters – or rather, crashes – into an ambiguous relationship with a fellow patient. Due to being located in the so-called “wrong” catchment area, Jed can't access the medication he so desperately needs, unlike his new friend. But when the situation goes further awry, he takes matters into his own hands in a surprising fashion. It's a slight tale, but beautifully performed by O'Neill and This Is England's Jo Hartley, and it makes its humane political point with calm and certainty.

One of four short films commissioned by Film4 and BBC Films as part of the London 2012 Festival, THE SWIMMER is a poetic, if inscrutable, paean to British culture from acclaimed Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher; Morvern Callar).

Beautifully shot in pristine black and white, it follows a lone swimmer on a wordless, dreamlike and occasionally unsettling odyssey along a vast British river, accompanied only by haunting snippets of dialogue and music from classic British '60s films If..., Billy Liar, The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, and The Lord Of The Flies, as well as the stirring melodies of Vaughan Williams and John Barry.

It's an iconoclastic take on the theme of what it means to be British, and I'd be lying if I said I truly understood all of Ramsay's opaque illustrations. But that's not really the point, as it's clearly intended as an artwork to experience rather than fully comprehend. If that sounds like I'm making excuses for it, I should point out that it's richly atmospheric and never boring, and I'm glad that there's still room on Channel 4 for experimental oddities such as this.

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