MOUNTAIN: the single-noun title, with possibilities for wide interpretation, gave rise to anticipation of a new Coast. Despite some extraordinarily annoying presenters, Coast has become a highlight in the general TV gloom, each programme consisting of an exploration of half a dozen topics and always including something interesting, informative and quirky. The Mountain format had an obvious difference, with a single presenter, Griff Rhys Jones, attempting the role of amiable buffoon.
The initial visual impact of Programme 1, "North West Highlands", was spectacular: vast white Sutherland snowscapes. My first thought, coloured by the snow-drought of 2007, was: when did they find those? How soon the decent winter of 2006 is forgotten - it was good to have a reminder that proper winters do still occur. GRJ's ascent of Ben Hope with Cameron McNeish was unremarkable, apart from the first "Pardon?" moment when the hill was described as "the most prized of all the Munros, because it's the furthest north, and the most remote". There followed snippets of non-mountain stuff: two incomer postmistresses, the artist Lottie Glob, an Assynt crofter, and a description of the Clearances as "a notorious moment in Scottish history." (A moment? Pardon?) The programme's approach to the Clearances, in particular, was superficial and simplistic, and that was when I realised this would not be an upland reincarnation of Coast.
At last we got a second mountain: Suilven, again in snowy raiment, and climbed on a windless day. That this might be unusual was not mentioned. GRJ stayed in Suileag bothy (no MBA credit), "miles from anywhere and anyone". Cue that this was going to be a suspend-disbelief production: unlike in the Julia Bradbury Wainwright programmes (see Ronald Turnbull's review, TAC71 p16), the film crew was not going to be acknowledged. GRJ certainly did well in the tricky conditions, although it would have been interesting to see the descent and the long walk-out.
The final section was Skye, with Griff mangling Gaelic, and English too: "Gaelic is a language rich in meaning." (Moving from Pardon? territory to You what?) A snowless Bruach na Frithe was climbed to complete what seemed to be the quota of three mountains in the hour.
Another element of Coast is the excellent supporting website including background information, associated walking routes and even a full playlist of the incidental music. The Mountain website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/mountain, is not in the same league. One example suffices: the section on the Black Cuillin is illustrated with a picture of Glamaig.
Expectations were lower for the subsequent programmes, which is maybe why Programme 2, "The Lakes", was more enjoyable. It was quite different too, with no straightforward mountain ascents. Some of the topics engaged me: Coleridge throwing himself off Broad Stand in an early variation of tombstoning, the granny's kitchen-style manufacture of Kendal Mint Cake with its sugar-plus-sugar recipe, and the obligatory mention of Wainwright but with a valiant attempt at a different angle by looking at Chris Jesty's revision project. It has to be said, AW would not have made much of garrulous Griff. The culmination was him (GRJ, not AW) thrutching two-thirds of the way up Napes Needle, an experience which he appeared to have no wish to repeat, confirmed in an interview in the Independent (5/8/07) when he said: "I'd seen others do it [rock climbing] and thought it looked fun, but I found it very difficult and didn't enjoy it. I think it's all to do with my age and physical capabilities." (This presumably explains why an attempt on the In Pinn, trailed on the pre-production IWC website, never happened - Ed.) It's also probably why there was a "don't mention the war" approach to the fact he didn't actually complete the Napes Needle climb.
Programme 3 was back to "Central Scotland", with the basic theme of "Get Griff up Ben Nevis". There were three attempts, and it was very bitty as we also darted back and forth across the country to Loch Laggan and the Cairngorms. Even knowing the geography, I had to concentrate to remember where we were, and the absence of maps was particularly noticeable, underlining the lack of any educational ambition. Perhaps Mountain was consciously designed for those with a limited attention span, but again topics were treated in desultory, spasmodic fashion: shinty, Rannoch - "probably the most remote railway station in the entirety of the British Isles" (Pardon?), Ardverikie (bizarrely mentioning neither Glenbogle of Monarch of the Glen fame, nor the classic climbing crag) and Glen Coe, "this valley was soaked in blood". (Yes, I broke my nose there in 1977.) The fragment on the Caledonian Canal suffered because of following on directly from an hour-long programme about Telford which had itself seemed quite sketchy.
GRJ's first attempt on the Ben began with an impressively fast run, 43 minutes, to the halfway lochan (from where he could see "most of Scotland") in the company of three Lochaber Athletic Club women. (An odd thing - it's definitely 43 minutes on the tape, but it's 48 minutes in the book of the series, p70 - Ed.) As he changed into boots and prepared to continue up, he was overtaken by two other runners who explained they were doing the Three Peaks Yacht Race, which Griff misheard as the Three Peaks Short Race; no one corrected him in his bemusement. Not long afterwards, this foray was halted by the weather closing in. The second attempt - via Number 4 Gully - was aborted in thawing snow with dramatic avalanche-debris shots. The final assault involved a damp scramble in grim conditions up a unnamed route. (It was Ledge Route - see p6 for more on this - Ed.) Visibility was minimal, but we were told there was a view from the summit only one day in three. I was surprised to hear it was so often, especially as Dr Warbeck in his webcam review in TAC71 said that the Ben was in cloud five days out of six. Why should GRJ's statistic be any more true than his statements that Aviemore is "right in the middle of the Cairngorms", and that the Cairngorms are "snow-capped for much of the year"? ("Aren't they?" asked my father-in-law from across the room in reaction to the groans coming from my side.)
For some reason, Griff was ensconced in a VW campervan for Programme 4. I missed the start because I had been weeping my way up the Old Man of Stoer with Julia Bradbury across on BBC Two and was still transfixed watching the credits. Did the person who edited Programme 4, "The Pennines", have any geographical grasp of the area? We started with the Three Peaks, then Cross Fell, then the River Derwent. I assumed this to be the North Yorkshire one, but an aerial shot of Ladybower Reservoir made me (but how many others?) realise that we had headed way south. Then we darted back to limestone pavements, although for several minutes the script gave no hint that we had moved out of the Peak District. We learnt here that cows do less ecological damage than sheep, but not why (it doesn't seem logical: they're bigger and are traditionally viewed as having five mouths, one in the head and one on each foot). The yodelling at Malham Cove was beneath comment.
And then, says Griff, "I'm travelling into Derbyshire." The sofa chorus screamed: "You've just been in bloody Derbyshire." There was further dotting about with no sense of cohesion, at one point with a clip of a drove road appearing amid a piece on Weardale miners, only for the same clip to reappear shortly afterwards in the packhorse section where it was meant to be. On Stanage Edge, GRJ was introduced as a novice climber. It was the attention span thing again: we weren't expected to remember having already seen him climbing in the Lakes and Scotland. The programme ended with the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the Mass Trespass on Kinder and the cheering conclusion that, thanks to government legislation, all access problems are over.
By now, remembering to watch was becoming a chore, despite the Sunday 9pm timeslot which is my usual collapse-in-front-of-the-TV time. The August scheduling didn't help, and I saw the five programmes in three different locations, including twice with visiting audiences. I bet Nancy Banks-Smith doesn't have to cope with coughing fits in stereo, or with the dramatic interruption of a neighbour rushing home from holiday because her mother has broken a hip. NBS is probably more technically competent than me, too: I missed the start of the final programme because I hadn't switched on the television during a three-day stay in Ullapool. It took several minutes to work out that BBC One was located on button four of the hotel TV.
GRJ seemed less manic in "Snowdonia, Wales". Maybe he was more at home, despite calling himself a bogus Welshman, or maybe it was the influence of Jim Perrin, listed as consultant to this programme. A few lightbulbs seemed to come on, as GRJ realised that going downhill is harder than going up, and that our "wild" landscapes are man-made. This final hour contained the only two items I would like to re-watch. The first was Johnny Dawes explaining how he visualises his way up a rock climb - his balance and poise, making shapes away from the rock, were the antithesis of the tendency of the less-talented (me and GRJ included) to hug and cling. Then the scramble up Tryfan with 77-year-old George Band, veteran of the 1953 Everest expedition, was fun: Griff seemed to be enjoying rather than tholing it. A discussion of the clothing used on Everest led to Band producing from his rucksack a cotton jacket worn during the expedition. He apologised for its paint-spattered condition: he had used it for house decorating. GRJ was, for once, nearly speechless at this casual treatment of such an historic garment. Great TV - which is, sadly, more than can be said for the rest.
TAC 72 Index