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Why Blue Planet II is literally out of its depth

Stop being so clever and give us some nice seals.

As I was settling down to a lovely Sunday evening Blue Planet II viewing session, staving off the Monday dread and soaking up the persistent dregs of a hangover with anything roastable from the fridge, I realised something.

This is the Paradise Papers of the set-piece nature programme world.

Like the Paradise Papers, Blue Planet II is uncovering vital information, never before seen by the public. And, like the Paradise Papers, its focus on process over the story obscures that.

We spoke on this week’s NS podcast about how both the BBC and Guardian reported too much on how they broke the story of the massive tax affairs leak – which news organisations had access to the documents, who knew the source, and how big the scoop was in comparison to Wikileaks and the Panama Papers – rather than the story itself.

If this is the top line, it’s just not that gripping a story.

It’s the same with Blue Planet II, or at least its second episode, “The Deep”. So dedicated was this episode to discovering depths of the ocean we’d never seen before, so engrossed was it in how it does this with state-of-the-art submarines and whizzy camera technology, it seemed to forget that not everything it was actually discovering was that great.

Once we’d sunk below the depths of the banging whale carcass festival, passed through ol’ fangtooth’s domain, seen the female kobudai hiding in a hole, changing sex and then coming out to wreak revenge, we ended up at a chasm 11km from the surface.

Only three human beings have reached here before, we’re told. But you can kind of see why. There’s not much down there. A few fancy sponges. A smattering of barely distinguishable organisms. Some white tick-like things. Just general bits of sea matter. And darkness.

Fantastic work for science, of course, but the Blue Planet II producers may have been so caught up in this that they forgot it’s not why everyone loves these programmes so much.

Nothing like the friendly walruses or badass orcas of the first episode down here. No stranded polar bear single mothers and randy but rejected dancing birds in sight. Where were the house-swapping crabs? Baby birds nearly plunging to their deaths? Solemn whales travelling 85 years for half a krill? Nowhere to be seen in the abyss.

The pioneering oceanography and light-up lumps of worm are all very impressive, but they need to be interspersed with some nice seals every once in a while. Like everything in life, we need the shallows with the depths. Especially on a Sunday night.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Troy: Fall of a City. Photo: BBC
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In Troy: Fall of a City, all the men look as if they’re in a Calvin Klein ad

Rachel Cooke reviews Troy and 24 Hours in Police Custody.

In Troy: Fall of a City (BBC One, 9.10pm, 17 February) pretty much all the men look as if they’re appearing in a new Calvin Klein ad. The exception is King Priam (David Threlfall) who, perhaps to suggest his wisdom, favours a kind of gap year uniform: long beads, mirror-work blouses and, if his hair hasn’t been washed for a few days, a head scarf.

Muscly and sweaty and always having hot sex – usually in beds with the Homeric version of high-thread-count sheets, over which some lackey cast rose petals during turn-down service – these Trojan guys really are a ton of fun: as good at conversation as at bringing Spartan queens to orgasm.

Take Paris (Louis Hunter), a character particularly suggestive of the strong whiff of Obsession. Dispatched by his father Priam to the court of King Menelaus (Jonas Armstrong) and his gorgeous, pouting wife, Helen (Bella Dayne, who is going to launch a thousand ships dressed in a high-necked feathered ensemble that brings to mind John Galliano in his pomp), he was certainly ready with the important questions. “How did you two get together?” he enquired, in the same tone you or I might ask friends about Tinder or Guardian Soulmates.

The BBC has begged journalists writing about Troy: Fall of a City to avoid spoilers; apparently, we must think of those coming to these myths “for the first time”. But I’m going to take a chance and assume that New Statesman readers are already well aware that Paris’s diplomatic mission to Sparta is soon to end in disaster, his having pinched Helen right from under Menelaus’s nose. I mean, even I know a bit about the Trojan War, and I went to a comprehensive school where the six embattled souls who wanted to learn Latin had to do so on a landing in their own time (like Menelaus, they knew all about public humiliation). Though in any case, surely Cassandra’s (Aimee-Ffion Edwards) weird hissy fits pretty much give the game away. Paris has only to lift his chiton (that’s a kind of tunic – and yes, I did have to Google it) for his sister to begin shaking like a leaf.

Troy’s writer David Farr (The Night Manager) has said that in this series he is keen to explore the other side of Paris and Helen; he regards their story as one of passion and the breaking of conventions, seeing Helen as a bolter rather than as the victim of an
abduction. I guess this is fair enough: there are several versions of this narrative on which to draw. But if only he had not made it all seem so tediously 21st century.

Helen’s marital unhappiness, for instance, is signalled by her fondness for smoking the ancient Greek equivalent of Valium, as if she was a housewife rather than a queen; and when Paris begs her to leave Menelaus, he speaks not of love or even of desire, but of her freedom, her right to fulfilment. The dialogue is so richly silted with self-help banalities, we might as well be watching a Meghan and Harry biopic as a drama inspired by the greatest of all epic poems. There’s also something exceedingly creepy about its retro, soft-porny direction (by Owen Harris); every time Helen takes a shower, you half expect her to whip out a Flake.

In the opening episode of the shot-in-real-time documentary series 24 Hours in Police Custody (Channel 4, 9pm, 19 February) the perpetrator of the crime – a man was being blackmailed for having visited a prostitute – turned out not only to be a copper, but (get this!) one of the officers on the surveillance team watching the spot where £1,000 had been left as bait. Naturally, this made for astonishing viewing; as DC Gareth Suffling was arrested, I thought at first a mistake had been made. But the real fascination of it for me lay in the fact that as a televisual coup, it was born less of serendipity than of the good and wholly transparent relationship forged between the producers and Bedfordshire Police (the series has been running since 2014). What it proved, quite brilliantly, is that hard-won trust and patience – neither of which are very fashionable qualities in journalism these days – can in the end deliver better results than what we might call a hit and run. Bide your time, programme makers, and the big reveal will be yours. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia