TV blog: Birds of Paradise

Benjie Goodhart / 26 January 2017

A boys-own adventure in Papua New Guinea, plus more TV highlights this week.

Birds of Paradise: The Ultimate Quest, Friday 3rd February, 9pm, BBC Two

I had initially intended to write about Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, but decided that an hour in the company of the pair of them might do something quite drastic to my blood pressure. Instead, I opted for the company of Frank Gardner and Benedict Allen, transmitting at the same time on BBC Two, and I would urge you to do the same.

Part-boys-own adventure, part-uplifting-rite-of-passage, part-anthropological study, part-natural history documentary, part-candid therapy session, there is so much going on in this splendid two-part series it’s difficult to look away.

The simple premise is this: BBC Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, a keen birdwatcher, has always harboured an ambition to see Birds of Paradise in their natural habitat. But there are a couple of fairly significant problems. That natural habitat is Papua New Guinea, basically one huge, swampy jungle, and one of the least explored countries on earth. Oh, and Frank Gardner, in case you didn’t know, has been in a wheelchair since being shot by terrorists in 2004. So the dream will remain just that.

Except that wouldn’t make much of a programme – if I wanted to watch a bloke sitting around at home looking grumpy and failing to attain his dreams, I’d just pop a big mirror in place of the telly. Luckily, five years ago, Gardner met the explorer Benedict Allen at a party, and the two began to hatch a plan. Allen, you see, has a bit of previous with Papua New Guinea. In fact, he’s got a second family over there.

No, no, not in that way. This isn’t some tabloid exposé of “cheating love rat TV star”. His second family is courtesy of a tribesman who adopted him when Benedict lived with the Niowra people three decades ago. Now, he’s going back for the first time, and taking Gardner with him.

There are so many gripping sub-plots to this it’s like a well-crafted drama. Gardner is confronting his demons. “This is so much more than just going to see a bird. This is, in a way, closure for my injuries.” But how will he cope in the brutal environment of the rainforest? And will he get to see his cherished birds?

Meanwhile, Allen has his own issues to tackle. The closer he gets to his old village, the more he worries about his reception. Will his adopted father welcome him with open arms, or turn him away? Will he even still be alive? And then Allen begins to recall some particularly brutal memories of life there. “Maybe it did do damage, and I’ve spent a lifetime trying to unpick it all.”

Both Gardner and Allen are strong, charismatic characters, and Gardner’s enthusiasm for everyone he meets is enchanting. (He has been told that in the Pidgin English dialect he must introduce himself by saying “Name belong me Frank,” which he says with great gusto to every person he encounters, always eliciting a look of utter bafflement!) The candour and openness of both regarding past physical and psychological traumas is laudable. And the result is a programme that is funny, fascinating, visually gorgeous, and ultimately very moving.

Witness birds take flight and soar the skies of their natural habitat on a special interest bird watching holiday Find out more here.

Escape to the Wild, Thursday 2nd February, 9pm, Channel 4

The first series of this show was called Kevin McCloud’s Escape to the Wild, but it was probably a good idea to change it for series two, what with Kevin McCloud no longer presenting. This isn’t entirely surprising. Poor McCloud looked so profoundly miserable throughout each wilderness sojourn, you half-expected him at any moment to burst into tears and pound the ground, wailing for a decaf skinny latte and an Ocado delivery.

His replacement is the rather more rugged Jimmy Doherty, better known as a food presenter and friend of Jamie Oliver. The producers are clearly at pains to emphasise his adventurous and unconventional credentials, with the opening montage: “15 years ago I left the rat race behind to build a new life in the English countryside.” Well, left the rat race in the sense that he started up a highly lucrative farm, and a successful media career. It’s hardly living off tree-sap in Borneo. The most remote thing about the English countryside is that the Wifi is slightly slower.

Anyway, this is all a little churlish, as Doherty is an amiable host, and the programme is pretty riveting. Each episode of the show follows Doherty as he goes to live with a family who have started a new life in the wilderness. The proper wilderness, not a pig farm 20 miles from Ipswich. In this film, for example, it’s Sophie and Simon, and toddler Max, who live on a beach on a remote island in Indonesia. Doherty’s journey involves two flights and a long journey in a weird rickshaw-bus hybrid, before a final boat trip. As he clambers out of the rickshaw-bus, he cheerily informs his fellow travellers he hopes to see them again. They look at him, bewildered, as if he doesn’t seem to understand that this is a country of 250 million inhabitants. I wonder if he shakes hands with people on the tube.

It’s an extraordinary life that Simon and Sophie lead. On the one hand, they have 11 acres of land, and a beautiful beach. That’s not bad, considering they’d both worked in Café Rouge before coming away. Back home, they’d be renting a shoe box flogging themselves on the work treadmill. But the whole enterprise still seems bonkers to me. Simon says he moved there after having a near fatal motorbike accident that caused him to reassess his life. But he’s moved to somewhere where pretty much everything wants to kill him and his family.

In his first moments in the area, Doherty encounters a six-metre python. It turns out the island is absolutely swarming with them. Then there are humungous monitor lizards, who killed all their chickens, and could easily take Max. The sea is teeming with sharks. There are regular earthquakes, and the tsunami alert is triggered 15-20 times a year.

Ah, counter Simon and Sophie, but think of what we’ve gained. Because they don’t work, they get to spend every moment of every day together as a family. Every moment. Of every day. Without friends. Or telly. Or the internet. Or booze. Or newspapers. Just… together. And just like that, any envy of their lifestyle vanishes…

The best… and the rest

Saturday 28th January

Francis Bacon: A Brush with Violence, 9pm, BBC Two: A candid and revealing biography of the notorious and riotous artist from some of those close to him.

Sunday 29th January

Special Forces – Ultimate Hell Week, 9pm, BBC Two: 22 recruits put themselves forward for a ridiculously gruelling military training challenge in the searing heat of South Africa. Those of sound mind need not apply.

Monday 30th January

Great American Railroad Journeys, 6:30pm, BBC Two: The erudite Mr Portillo brings his copy of Appleton’s Guidebook, his enthusiasm for trains, and his ghastly taste in garish blazers, to the US Rail Network.

Read our interview with Michael Portillo this month

George III – The Genius of the Mad King, 9pm, BBC Two: After 200 years under lock and key, new documents, diaries and letters written by and about George III paint a surprising picture of Mad King George who, it turns out, was actually a sheep called Marjorie. (That last bit may not be true).

Tuesday 31st January

Tales from the Coast with Robson Green, 8pm, ITV: The actor travels to various stretches of the UK coast to reveal how being an island nation has shaped our national identity.

Sicily: The Wonder of the Mediterranean, 9pm, BBC Two: Historian Michael Scott presents a two-part series on the largest and most conquered island in the Med.

The Modern British Slave Trade, 10pm, Channel 4: Depressing documentary following the rise of modern day forced labour, happening closer to home than you may think.

Wednesday 1st February

Have some friends over for dinner. Play tiddlywinks. Clean the underside of the sink. Nothing to see here…

Thursday 2nd February

The Secret Life of 5 Year Olds, 8pm, Channel 4: More fascinating, hilarious and poignant insights into what it is to be a five-year-old. Magical.

Parenting for Idiots, 10pm, Channel 4: Celebs share their own parenting experiences, while the childless ones experience the realities of looking after a child. (It’s easy. Give them a screen and some sweets, and return when they’re 18).

Friday 3rd February

Piers Morgan’s Life Stories, 9pm, ITV: Piers Morgan talks to Nigel Farage. Nope. Me neither.

Tracey Ullman’s Show, 9:30pm, BBC One: Series one of this impressions and sketch show was more hit than miss, so it’s a welcome return for the talented youngster Ms Ullman.

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