TV blog: Alaska: Earth's Frozen Kingdom and more

Benjie Goodhart / 30 January 2015

Benjie Goodhart rounds up the best of what's on the box, including a magnificent new BBC wildlife programme and a deeply moving documentary. Plus, Benjie reveals his guilty pleasure in watching Top Gear, and takes a look at The Jump.

Preview: Alaska: Earth’s Frozen Kingdom, Wednesday 4th February, 8pm, BBC Two

I like a bit of drama in my weather. I like cold, snowy winters, and baking hot summers. But I draw the line at temperatures that can fluctuate between the 90°F in summer and -80°F in winter. There’s dramatic, and then there’s just losing your toes to frostbite. Alaska is a wild and extreme place, full of drama and beauty and strangeness and Sarah Palin. I have no desire to live there – or indeed anywhere where there are more polar bears than cake shops and you have to wash your face in antifreeze. But I could watch TV about it all day long.

This is yet another fascinating, beautiful, painstakingly filmed and sharply edited natural history documentary from the BBC, the first in a three-part series that will cover a calendar year in this vast wilderness. This programme joined proceedings in spring, presumably on the basis that if they started in winter, they’d just have several hundred hours of footage of wind-blasted snow, and a dead camera crew at the end of it.

In spring, the Arctic Ground Squirrel wakes up after a fair old sleep. At eight months, its hibernation period is the longest of any creature on Earth. It kind of makes me want to be an Arctic Ground Squirrel. Sleeping so much of the year away, he wakes up in a hurry, immediately getting involved in fights, before finding a female with whom to procreate. Basically, it wakes up and immediately embarks on a 21-year-old’s Saturday night in small-town Britain. He has to time it right though – the female is only interested in sex for 12 hours every year. Maybe I don’t want to be an Arctic Ground Squirrel after all.

I certainly don’t want to be an Alaskan fisherman in search of black cod. Not now the sperm whales have learned to follow the boats and pick their catch off the line as it is drawn in. The footage of this extraordinary ritual is astonishing, as is the ingenuity of our cetacean chums. On the other hand, I’d be quite happy to be a herring fisherman. Every spring, for a few days, billions upon billions of herring arrive to spawn. You basically have to dip your nets in the water and you’re done. A boat can net as much as 1000 tonnes in 15 minutes. Annual salaries can be made in a day. Which leaves you 364 days to do whatever Alaskans do for fun. Another snowball fight anyone?

I don’t want to be a herring. They’re a big fishy target, preyed upon by fishermen, sea lions, birds, dolphins and sperm whales. Even their eggs are eaten by the native Americans, who harvest them in a brilliant way. For the record, I also don’t want to be a sea otter (very chilly, although I like the idea of eating a quarter of my own body weight every day) or a black bear (born up a tree!). But I could watch them all over and over. From the comfort of my sofa, with the heating up nice and high.


Review: Touched by Auschwitz, Tuesday 27th January, 9pm, BBC Two

This deeply-moving feature-length film interviewed a handful of Auschwitz survivors, and those closest to them, to discover how their lives had turned out after the war. The answers, of course, all differed. Some had thrived, others survived. Some had nightmares, suffered anxiety, or were obsessed with talking about their experiences. Others shut it away – for good or for ill – and tried to move on. 

Some exuded a degree of humanity and faith that seems incomprehensible. Max Epstein, a happy octogenarian in Illinois discovered a belief in kindness in Auschwitz. For a few short weeks a German guard took pity on him, and tried to protect him from beatings. “It was very dark,” says Max. “The smallest act of kindness appeared like a large spark. I choose to remember the large sparks. That’s my motto. That’s what I live by.”

For others, the sadness and pain simply endured, and was passed on to the next generation who, despite being born in the 50s and 60s, were, in their own way, touched by Auschwitz. Who can grow up, watching a parent in torment, and not be affected. 

This was a film about ordinary people, made remarkable by their experiences. What happened to them, in the supposed carefree days of youth, was inhuman. The way they survived, and got on with their lives, was superhuman. All, though, are defined by that dreadful place. How could they not be?

But, one way or another, they all say the same thing: Don’t forget us. Don’t forget our families, and those we saw die. Remember the Holocaust, so that it doesn’t happen again. That is why it is beholden on us all to watch, even when the temptation is to turn away. It is, quite frankly, the very least we can do.

Review: Top Gear, Sunday 25th January, 8pm, BBC Two

Okay, time for something of a no-pun-intended gear change now. If watching programmes about the Holocaust seems like a moral duty, watching Top Gear feels like a guilty, grubby little secret, like discovering the underwear section of the Littlewoods catalogue when you were 11, or having cocktails before lunch. 

I watched Top Gear on my morning commute from Brighton to London. I’d have been more comfortable watching one of Channel 4’s old red triangle films with my parents, such was the degree of shiftiness I felt. I found myself hiding the screen under the table, particularly when the entirely polarising figure of Jeremy Clarkson appeared onscreen.

Why, then, didn’t I watch at home? Because, and this is the truth, I can’t even admit to my wife that I like Top Gear. (There. I’ve said it: I don’t just review Top Gear, I like it). She’d rather catch me licking the guest crockery and putting it back in the cupboard. Luckily she’ll not read this. She reasons, not illogically, that she has to listen to my ill-informed witterings enough without having to read them as well.

I don’t really have an excuse for liking Top Gear. I find most of what Jeremy Clarkson says, writes, and in particular wears, to be deeply disturbing. I can’t abide cars. Top Gear would be much better without all the chat about cars. I mean, I’ve got one, it moves around with the requisite degree of effectiveness, but I don’t have the slightest interest in how it works, just as long as it does. I don’t want to spend £200k on a car that can go at 200mph, because (a) I live in a city with 20mph speed limits, and (b) I have no desire to die in a fireball. If I wanted to listen to men complaining about speed cameras, I’d go to the pub. If I wanted to listen to men decrying the idea of global warming, I’d go to somewhere that science, and basic logicality, doesn’t exist. The Midwest, perhaps.

But here I am, writing about Top Gear. Again. Laughing at the pre-planned idiocy and entirely-staged madcappery of three petrolheads. Finding myself gripped by a race across St Petersburg that, as ever, managed to come right down to the wire. As they always seem to. Funny, that.

Anyway, it’s back, bigger, noisier and stupider than ever. And it brings me no joy whatsoever to admit that I’m delighted. Sorry.

Preview: The Jump, starts Sunday 1st February, 7pm, Channel 4

Do you remember Superstars? (Don’t actually shout your answer at the screen, I can’t hear you, and it makes you look weird). The show where sporting celebs competed at various disciplines to be crowned the best of the best? And Brian Jacks always won? Well, The Jump is something similar, except (a) instead of sports stars you have people from The X Factor and The Only Way is Essex, and (b) the sports are all of the winter variety. 

In truth, the show is a lot more fun than it sounds. Unless you think watching someone who used to be in JLS falling over a lot is the apogee of human entertainment, in which case it’s exactly as much fun as it sounds.

The first series of The Jump, this time last year, ended up looking like a particularly savage episode of Casualty. Contestants dropped like flies, the air was thick with the sound of ribs cracking and reality TV stars shrieking. Even Sir Steve Redgrave had to pull out, which felt like learning Father Christmas wasn’t real. (Sorry if this is a revelation to any of you. But, frankly, if you’re reading and you still believe, something has gone awry in your social development).

The format is this – every evening, contestants will compete in a new event (slalom, bobsleigh, skeleton, ski cross, boarding etc) and the people at the bottom of the pile will face elimination. They then have to do a ski jump – yes, a ski jump(!) – and those who jump the shortest distances go home.

This is where The Jump falls, quite literally, slightly short. After all the hype surrounding this death-defying finale, the jumps themselves look disappointingly small. Basically, the show climaxes with you watching a wannabe pop star in unflattering Lycra plop off a glorified step. I’m told it’s far scarier than it looks.

Anyway, besides that, this is a show that puts the fun in, um winfunter sports. And this year has an impressively diverse roster of celebrities competing for The Jump Cowbell Trophy (why oh why didn’t they call it The Simon Cowbell Trophy?) The presenter, once again, is Davina McCall, who brings her own brand of good cheer and warmth to proceedings nicely.

In the first show, the men go up against each other in the Skeleton (bobsleigh on a tray, head-first). I fully expect Phil Tufnell and Gogglebox’s Dom Parker to go out first, and spend the next week contentedly supping gluhwein. If you fancy a bet on the overall winner, go for Mike Tindall.

Tomorrow, it’s the turn of the girls, including Heather Mills, Stacey Solomon, Jodie Kidd, and Lady Victoria Hervey, who presumably spent most of her childhood in Klosters.


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