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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Last Chance to See, BBC2

The brazen fixation of gluing a celebrity to a show born of a necessity to lure an audience that dumbly follows the lives of the fatuous and feeble to drink at their televisual waterhole is as an objectionable a trend as the spiteful sullying of the altruistic notion of ‘political correcteness’ by the bellowed protestations of badly-dressed, lackadaisical fascists who are frustrated that they can no longer casually persecute minorities on Sunday evening for the amusement of their baying pack of sniggering hyenas.

But thankfully this Sunday evening show subverts the trend and employs a true ‘celebrity’ to advertise the plight of animals that are being ushered to blinkered extinction all round the globe. And in this episode Stephen Fry began by venturing to the verdant depths of the Amazon where the declining numbers of manatee (imagine a seal crossed with Oliver Hardy) lurk in the turbid tributaries of the world’s greatest wilderness.

And perhaps the boldest proof of the urgency of Fry’s quest was that no wild manatees were found despite weeks of searching. As Fry’s guide Mark Cawardine explained, they rarely venture anything more than their nostrils above the surface of the water, but only a few decades ago the rivers were teeming with them.

While Fry is an ever-erupting volcano of knowledge on QI, aboard the boat slithering through the endless streams flowing into the Amazon in some quaint middle-class version of Heart of Darkness, he was cumbersome, fidgety and uncouth. This led to some entertaining interludes amid the cautious scouring for the beast, such as when he and Mark cracked up in a canoe or as they held down a restless captive manatee that was to be returned to the wild and it broke wind and defecated, leading to a predictable bout of mirth. And while hunched over his laptop as an apocalyptic cyclone raged outside Fry confided, only half-jokingly: “We’re all going to die!”

This is where the appealing personality of Fry was, perhaps cynically, put to good use; to maintain the intrigue of viewers as the personality of the manatee was gradually unwrapped. It was left to Cawardine to enrapture Fry, and the audience, about how their teeth are eroded away by the tough vegetation they feast on, but that they have evolved an endless conveyor belt of molars that replace the ones at the front that drop out once reduced to desuetude. And in the jungle settlements, Fry was horrified as he learned the reason behind the animal’s decline: it tastes like beef, providing the local people with a tasty, docile food supply

Fry’s physical stoicism was also apparent when Cawardine spotted an emerald boa entwined about an overhanging branch, and went out to photograph it on a rickety canoe as the circumspect Fry looked on from the boat. “It’s not Mark I’m worried about, it’s the extremely valuable camera equipment,” he quipped as if trying to compensate for his absence of physical bravery by taking comfort in his amiable wit.

The irony, however, was that it was the cautious Fry who ended up in more bother than Cawardine, and even the manatee, after falling from the gangplank of a boat and breaking his arm in three places. The TV veteran appeared embarrassed by his accident, more than anything because he knew it would distract from the plight of the endangered manatee, and so composed a beautiful elegy to the demise of the wonderful creature, defining that while words alone may not save it, they can certainly contribute to promoting a judicious conservation programme.

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