The Angry Corrie 68: Jun-Sep 2006

The off-air affair

Much has been said of late about how the absence of live Test cricket on terrestrial TV will lead to young people not taking up the game. David McVey is worried that this has already happened with televised mountaineering.

image from source document

WHAT FIRST AROUSED your interest in the outdoors, in walking, mountaineering, the hills? In my case, it was the telly. Yes, the medium blamed for the very creation of Stupid, for pale complexions, bulging stomachs and couch-tattieism actually got me up and out and into the fresh air. And I bet I'm not the only one.

I can place exactly the first little step that would lead, ultimately, to unrepentant serial hillwalking. It was the TV film of Chris Bonington's expedition to Annapurna, first broadcast in 1970. You young people won't believe this, but it was shown at 8pm on ITV (or ITV1 as we must now call it), in what you might now call the Celebrity Fit Club slot.

I was nine and I loved it: ice, snow, spectacular mountain skyscapes (even in black and white, which our telly was), courage, dry British wit and real life-or-death drama. The successful summiteers - Don Whillans and Dougal Haston - became instant heroes and the talk of the school next day. Haston was ranked alongside Colin Stein, Jinky Johnstone and our 1970 Commonwealth Games gold medallists as a revered Scot.

In the years that followed, couthier programmes about the adventure available on our doorstep - Weir's Way, Go with Noakes and the odd BBC Scotland documentary about climbing on Ben Nevis or the Cuillin - suggested that this outdoor stuff might be for us, too. Then, in 1975, the Imperial Viceroy of British Mountaineering led another expedition, this time to the south-west face of Everest. This was reported, as it happened, on BBC News. There were regular snippets for children on Blue Peter. The complete expedition film, shown some months later, was almost too thrilling for words. It was often repeated in the years that followed and I never missed it. It was the first time that British climbers had made it to the top - Haston again, with Boardman and Scott and Nepal's Pertemba. The expedition book (I wore out my paperback copy and have now replaced it with a first edition hardback) contains mountain photography that still makes the jaw drop further than ITV1's current ratings.

Mick Burke, working as a high-altitude cameraman for the BBC, lost his life on the expedition. It's possible that he became the fifth of the team to summit. The Mick Burke Award became an annual feature on BBC2, giving airtime to competing expedition films from a variety of young climbers, naturalists and explorers. After a few years it became a single programme with only short excerpts from the films in competition. Then it was shifted to a midweek afternoon slot during the Christmas break. Now, although the award still exists, it has been dropped from the schedules completely.

The year 2000 was the 25th anniversary of the 1975 Everest Expedition, but neither on this nor on the 30th anniversary did the BBC rescreen the expedition film, one of the most breathtaking programmes they have ever shown. What has happened to expedition or mountaineering or adventure programmes on TV? Yes, there's the odd dramatic reconstruction blowing in from cinema (Touching the Void), and occasional historical examination of exploration-gone-wrong (the Karluk programme on BBC2). Yes, there are travelogues which feature segments in wild country; but while I enjoy watching the peregrinations of Michael Palin, they're TV programmes about journeys designed with the express purpose of making TV programmes - which is not expedition programming. And, yes, BBC Scotland did trail a documentary about the life of Dougal Haston as I was preparing this piece, but they only did that to throw me off the trail, I'm sure. (The Haston programme proved to be rather good, with scenes repeatedly stolen by Robin N Campbell, most notably when he hinted at former glories by clambering on to the roof at Lagangarbh via Jimmy Marshall's shoulder - Ed.)

BBC, Channel 4 and even ITV used to have regular slots for adventure programmes - The World about Us and To the Ends of the Earth spring to mind. Remember the film about the British canoe expedition on the Dudh Khosi? Ed Hillary's heart-stopping powerboat trip up the Ganges? Ballooning over Everest? Across the Andes by - er - Frog?

"Ah, but tastes have changed," runs the argument. "Viewers want to see people they identify with, not super-hard explorers and mountaineers. They want to watch stupid people talking rubbish all day - like on Big Brother. More accessible, yeah? So, no people that are so clever or brave or talented that they intimidate Joe Skybox."

A confession: I hate "reality" TV with a frightening intensity. On the telly, I prefer to watch people more talented than me entertaining me or making me laugh, and brainy people making me think and telling me stuff I don't know but they do. I want to see inspirational people feeding my sense of wonder by doing things I'll never do (and I don't mean pretending to be a cat on live TV) and going places I'll never go.

So the airhead schedulers think there is no market for programmes about mountaineering or exploration? Why, then, do thousands flock to IMAX cinemas to see that (actually rather rubbish) American film about Everest? Or fill seats at mountain film festivals in Fort William, Dundee, Kendal and a growing number of other places? Or go to expedition-related talks organised by the Royal Scottish Geographical Society?

Am I just an out-of-touch "Disgusted of Kirkintilloch" old git railing against the dumbing-down of TV? No, because I know it's not quite as simple as that. Reality TV infests the medium like a particularly nasty, over-scratched rash, but a close relative of adventure programming - wildlife and natural history - remains in good health. The BBC's output in this area remains outstanding, and they're not afraid to front it with gravitas-rich grandees like David Attenborough, conspicuously brainy academics like Charlotte Uhlenbroek, or amateurs like Bill Oddie who display those most unfashionable qualities, knowledge and enthusiasm.

The Beeb does offer a few smaller-scale, outdoor-related programmes - Nick Crane's little gem Map Man and Aubrey Manning's Landscape Mysteries spring to mind - but expedition stuff is lacking. Channel 4 is an utterly lost cause with regard to adventure as in so many other ways. If you want to get people and mountains to meet on that channel, you'll need to recruit a dozen exhibitionists (ghastly celebrididdies you've never heard of unless you buy those lurid gossip mags) who have never been near a hill before, and send them on an expedition. There'd be a weekly "Cut the Rope!" vote to see which shallow egotist takes the "Crash into the Crevasse!" And Davina would interview them in her carefully cultivated estuarine bawl: "So, 'ow did it feel when you fell dahn that gully, Daz?" (Sounds good. I'd watch it - Ed.)

So where is the expedition programming? Discovery Channel? National Geographic TV? Expedition websites? Nothing wrong with these - but how we explore and challenge our wild places tells us a great deal about our planet and its people. And so there should be programmes about it on terrestrial TV. Not everybody wants Stupid.

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