14 AUGUST 2004, Page 42

Human zoo

Simon Hoggart

T've given up loathing Big Brother 1 (Channel 4). Life is too short to watch it, never mind hate it. I did catch some of the last pair of programmes, but in the end couldn't stand any more and went to bed. It's not for the likes of us. I was reminded of an attraction called Penguin Encounter' at Sea World in San Diego. You are carried on a slow travelator past a glass case, maybe 150 feet long, filled with penguins standing around on guano-spattered rock. Their life is not your life. It is very cold. It is highly fish-oriented. They don't mind eating off their own droppings. It's fascinating to watch for ten minutes or so, but after that you want to return to human life and human concerns.

The penguins maintain more dignity than the Big Brother housemates, though that's not saying much. And you do feel a little sorry for both groups of creatures; the birds imprisoned, the humans obliged to make idiots of themselves for the greater profit of Channel 4 and Endemol, while competing for a prize roughly the same as one TV executive's annual expenses.

At the end, when they're voted out, they have the added humiliation of being greeted by Davina McCall, one of those mysterious figures who is always on television because she is always on television. Davina's brain is a bit like an Internet site plagued by pop-ups. Entirely random thoughts occur to her and are spattered out like penguin guano. 'You did quite a lorra swearing, Shell,' she told the young woman who came fourth. 'I love that! Notty! Notty, but nice!' Michelle smiled sweetly at this pretty compliment, all the more surprising as the contestants are instructed loudly and frequently not to swear live on camera.

Davina is a big girl. She has parsnipshaped legs, arms like Christmas hams, and a nose that resembles a boat hook, which is why she is usually photographed from the front. Her very existence is baffling to me, but not to the people who understand the arcane young people's world, for whom this bizarre person is as welcome as a fresh bucket of fish to the penguins.

Another strange programme is Battlefield Britain (BBC 2, Fridays) in which Peter Snow and his son Dan narrate the story of famous battles with the help of convincing computer graphics. No longer do we have to watch eight members of the Sealed Knot bashing each other from different camera angles to make it look as if there are, ooh, at least 30 of them. Whole armies spring convincingly to life. I've never had such a good sense of what a battle must have felt, looked and sounded like.

For Peter Snow, of course, it is the ultimate swingorneter, the last great sandpit. As a licensed television eccentric he is allowed to leap about and be silly, while his lad, curiously enough, plays the straight man. They resemble the rival teachers in Alan Bennett's The History Boys. 'Now, I don't know what my father has been putting into your head — more foolishness, I suppose — but this is what the examiners require Everything has to be made modern and upto-date. Harold's dash north to face the Vikings is illustrated by Dan roaring up the Al(M). Ah, that's how he did it! To demonstrate the tedium caused by William's long wait to attack, we see a group of bored men playing snooker. Why? Guys, we can understand the concept of boredom! We watch television! Why don't you show us what they really did to pass the time? Play dice? Tell yarns of dead heroes? Seduce the local women? Snooker might be a clever idea, but it isn't informative.

Unlike All the Queen's Cooks (BBC 1, Tuesday), which was full of interesting stuff about what the Queen eats, though not much of it provided by the weary old royal pundits, who know very little but say it so portentously that it sounds somehow significant. 'She likes lamb, beef, nothing too spicy. . . 'someone announced in the manner of one who has discovered that William Shakespeare once appeared on an early edition of Big Brother. 'It has been known for the Queen to have scrambled eggs, sometimes for breakfast,' we learnt. 'I don't think she does use teabags,' or, 'In front of the television she might have some fish, or a piece of chicken.' In spite of the use of clips from popular comedy shows, the programme had a retro feel, from the days when every royal titbit was passed around like samizdat manuscripts in the Soviet Union. Now we know about the stains on Prince Charles's pyjamas, the fact that the Queen enjoys cucumber sandwiches with the crusts cut off is slightly less exciting.

But the whole thing was worth it to see Marguerite Patten, apparently still alive, still making Coronation Chicken. Great gobs of yellow chicken coated in mayonnaise and curry powder, topped with apricots and almonds. No, please, no! Will we have to eat it again when Charles is crowned, and can I have some scrambled eggs instead? Or even the roast rat his mother ate in Belize?