18 OCTOBER 1997, Page 78


Too silly for words

James Delingpole

For some annoying reason, most of the programmes I want to review seem to come up when it's Simon Hoggares week. It hap- pened a couple of months back with that brilliant documentary about how the Nazca lines weren't really built as runways for alien spaceships; it happened again with the one about my favourite obsession — man-eating sharks; and now it's happened with A Dance to the Music of Time.

I'd rather hoped that, being a lefty, Simon would have got it all wrong. But he didn't. Perhaps I will find something clever and authoritative to add to his remarks in the serial's final week. In the meantime, all I can do is concur with his astute observa- tions — especially regarding the director's truly inspired decision to begin by showing Claire Skinner in the nude.

Instead, I've decided to deal with rubbish like Michael Aspel's Strange but True? (ITV, Friday) and Mysteries with Carol Vor- dem= (BBC 1, Tuesday). This will give me an excuse to tell you all about my mad sister Helen.

Mad Sister Hel, as she's known, hasn't always been mad. In fact, as recently as 18 months ago, she was no more eccentric than Phoebe, the space cadet on Friends. But then she moved to Bristol — capital of New Age slackerdom; she took up the mys- terious healing art of Reiki; and she began 'Bitter! Of course I'm bitter, my de-frosted sperm is having a much better time than lever did.' reading books like The Celestine Prophesy, The Bible Code and anything by David Icke. She now believes that the apocalypse is imminent, that aliens exist and that if you've got a nasty headache she can cure it down the telephone.

If this goes on much longer, I fear she may be lost to some loony cult. This is why I have made it one of my life missions to give her what cult-busters call the Tough Love treatment I try to tease her as much as possible and I'm always on the look-out for incontrovertible proof that her belief system is flawed.

Hence my excitement about that Nazca lines documentary, which effectively scotched all the nonsense put about by Erich von Daniken in the Chariots of the Gods. But did my sister see it? She did not. Nor did she see the one which dared to dis- pute the psychic credentials of the famous- ly litigious Uri Geller. Typically, Helen was busy meeting her animal spirit guide at a shamanic workshop in Crete.

The problem is that intelligent pro- grammes which attempt to give rational explanations for paranormal phenomena are vastly outnumbered by those which pander to the credulous and the downright bonkers.

All too often, the latter sort of show is presented by a 'figure of trust'. David Frost, whom everyone imagines to be frightfully sharp and sceptical because he was once involved in satire, does the ludi- crous Beyond Belief. Nice, avuncular Michael Aspel does Strange but True. And Carol Vorderman is now abusing the scien- tific credentials she earned on Tomorrow's World with her inconsequential Mysteries With . . .

Rather than attempt to elucidate the world's great mysteries, Vorderman's show prefers to revel in ignorance. This week, for example, she went to St Petersburg to research the disappearance of a fabled art treasure called the Amber Room. And her conclusion was: who knows? Maybe it was destroyed by Allied bombs; maybe by a Russian hand-grenade; maybe it's still hid- den in a Nazi bunker. Thanks, Carol. That's really cleared things up! And when there is a perfectly logical explanation available, she chooses to bur! it beneath a pile of nutty speculation. Another item dealt with a low-flying plane which seemed to crash and explode in the Peak District. Despite a thorough search, no wreckage was found. Much space was given to the countless witnesses who testi- fied as to how strange it all was; remark' ably little to the lone scientist who boringlY suggested that it was probably just a mete- orite.

A favoured device on programmes like Vorderman's and Aspel's is the 'dramatic reconstruction'. This enables ordinary peo- ple who've 'experienced' paranormal phe- nomena to enjoy their 15 minutes of faille/ and the programme-makers to invest their product with a deceptive air of verisimili- tilde. The result is often unintentionally comic.

I particularly liked the group of elderly Brommies who appeared on last week's Strange but True. One of them had decided he was the reincarnation of a Civil War sol- dier. Useful that. If he'd been an Aztec or one of Drake's sailors it might have proved too expensive to re-enact his past exploits. But the Civil War's easy. That's what the Sealed Knot are for . . .

All too silly for words, I thought, pleased that I'd rung Mad Sister Hel beforehand to warn her that the programme was on. At last she'd realise just how stupid some of her ideas were. Minutes later she rang me back. 'Isn't this amazing!' she said. 'It's almost exactly what happened to me. Remember how I was feeling a bit strange the other week? Well, I went to see a hyp- n. otherapist and it turns out that, back la the 17th century, I was burned as a witch ...'