Daytime TV: England at a canter

Elements of the national character are revealed to Gary Day through Hartlepool, horses and honeybees

April 30, 2009

The fact that no one can define Englishness did not deter Michael Smith from trying to find out what it is (Citizen Smith, BBC Four, Tuesday 21 April 11.45pm). He began his search in Hartlepool, where he grew up. The town has been transformed since he left, but the graffiti claiming that he was gay is still there. Michael showed us where he first got drunk: "Three cans of Newcastle Brown."

He buttoned his coat against the spring weather. The future of Hartlepool lies in tourism. What? It was hard to hear above the wind booming around the headland. The old fish-and-chip shops are gone. In their place are tapas bars, bistros and a swanky Chinese restaurant. A magician did a card trick while Michael struggled with his chopsticks.

The North he remembered had melted away. Shipbuilding had disappeared and with it a particular type of male: strong, hard-drinking and prone to giving his wife a black eye. Michael's grandmother cooked him bacon and told him that women had too much freedom nowadays.

Michael discovered that the iron curtain that divided North from South had rusted away. The difference between them was integral to regional, if not national, identity. Now those who dwell beyond the Watford Gap work in service industries and go to art galleries, just like real people.

"Thatcherism was a necessary evil. It cleared the ground so Blair and Brown could build a new Britain." One of call centres and out-of-town shopping centres? Michael must have been on the Newcastle Brown again. No matter if he had. Drink is what the English have in common.

That and a love of animals. But to become one? That's a different matter. Nevertheless, that's what Zoe and Garron tried to do in deepest Devon; without either of them being under the influence (My Life as an Animal, BBC Three, Thursday 23 April 9pm). Tony, a wildlife photographer, told them they were to be stripped of their humanity. But first they had to be stripped of their clothes. And then they had to roll around in urine-soaked straw. Garron found some dung, which he selflessly rubbed over Zoe. She was to live with thoroughbreds, while he was to live with wild ponies. Gender relations in the South West had clearly not progressed as far as they had in Hartlepool.

Neither Zoe nor Garron made a very good horse. They walked on two legs and slept lying down. They couldn't flick their ears, they didn't greet each other with a little nip, and their method of using their limbs to eat raised the horse equivalent of an eyebrow.

But the creatures did not appear too perturbed by the failure of these humans to integrate. They carried on eating grass, swatting flies off each other and going for a trot together. They even had sex. "My God, that's awesome," said Zoe as a stallion mounted a mare.

If you can't join them, beat them, as the old saying doesn't quite go. Both Zoe and Garron were given the task of moving up the horse hierarchy. Garron squatted down on the moor. "I'm going to use my Jedi mind trick to get them to come to me," he said. Hours later he was still chasing them. When he eventually collapsed with exhaustion, the lead mare took pity on him with a friendly bite. He'd been told there was no point screaming on the moor, but he still did.

Zoe waves her head around a lot at a horse called Becks, which is at first very patient. But when she starts using management-speak, he snaps and kicks her. There is a lot of screaming. There is a lot of running around. The horse psychologist is called upon to explain what has happened.

If a horse gets a broken leg, it is put down. Zoe is only bruised, so why is Andrew, the slaughterman, coming to see her? Quick. Someone tell him she is not really a horse. She was only pretending. But Andrew has only come to explain how he shoots them. "I give them food, help them bow their head and then pull the trigger. They don't feel a thing." He should know. He has killed more than 2,000 horses.

The honeybee is not yet extinct (Who Killed the Honey Bee?, BBC Four, Thursday 23 April 9pm). But it is dying out at an alarming rate. What is the cause? Climate change, pesticides, mites; no one is really sure. Every third mouthful depends on this velvet insect. If it goes, we may not be far behind. The appropriately named Bee Wilson, author of The Hive: The Story of the Honeybee and Us, sees that as poetic justice. After all, it was only in the 19th century that we stopped killing entire hives to extract the honey.

What can be done? Cultivate your garden. It's a very English thing to do.

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