The Secret Life of Waves, BBC4

by | Feb 5, 2011 | All, Reviews

Trust BBC4. So lax are the reins on the esoteric areas the channel is able to explore, it frequently surprises and delights by delving into a subject you had little or no interest in and making you both intrigued by that same subject and thirsty for more knowledge.

Waves have rarely been the sole focus of any show. We remember in the mid-80s, an era when Channel 4’s ad breaks were freeze frame of ‘Programmes will continue shortly’, when the said station broadcasted a show simply entitled waves. It was about an hour of waves crashing on to jagged, black rocks around the coast of the British Isles, set to a desolate soundtrack. And it was wonderful.

Sadly, Channel 4 has enough money now to make mass-appeal dross, and so has abandoned this type of atmospheric show to oblivion.

But thankfully, BBC4 has taken up the gauntlet. Echoes of Waves were apparent in The Secret Life of Waves in the way the screen was often filled with wave after wave after wave crashing ashore or meandering ominously through the ocean, the horizontal peak giving a peek of the extravagant power beneath the surface.


But it being BBC4, that wasn’t good enough. We had to learn something, too.

And to lead us through this odyssey we had the likeable David Malone. He reminded us of Professor Brian Cox. Handsome, in his early 40s, with the haircut of someone half his age and, most importantly, a barely containable desire to share knowledge with his viewers.

He further reminded us of Professor Cox through his slightly amateurish habit of talking over his guests, lacking the patience and professionalism to wait until they’d finished making their point before beginning his rejoinder.

This is a minor quibble, however, easily compensated for by the fascinating subject matter.

We learnt about how waves far out in the ocean ‘travel’. In reality, the waves are caused by the wind blowing on the surface but the water doesn’t actually move. The wave travels through the water causing the undulation, causing the next wave through a combination of displacement and gravity.

And when the waves break near the shore they do so because the top of the wave moves quicker than the bottom of the wave, causing it to topple over.

But the wave doesn’t finish there. Once it breaks on the shore it continues through the transference of energy into the sound of the wave crashing, the reflection as the wave is pulled back out to sea and the last part is transferred into the sand, To explain this, David took us through various laboratories in Cambridge and Southampton, while venturing out onto the beach as professors led him through the complexities of something that seems so simple.


Slightly less successful was David’s attempt to draw an analogy between the ‘process’ of waves and the ‘process’ of human existence. Such a portentous subject perhaps needed a separate dedicated programme.

Here we felt the theories were a little rushed and ham-fisted. David explained that it is difficult to regard human life as a process, and we instead regard people as objects as it’s rare for someone to witness the whole of the process from beginning to end, and the change that goes with it. A process quite apparent in waves.

But, he failed to mention, processes are common to a phenomenon as common as the seasons, where it’s quite easy to see the changes each season brings.

We do applaud David’s ambition for bringing something as weighty as the analogy between life and death and waves to television. And we also sympathised that establishing such a link may have helped him grieve for the loss of his mother, who passed away during the time he made this film.

His determination to reconcile his love of waves, and their role in the healing process, with his own loss were far more profound than any of the many incredible facts he discovered in his more earnest scientific exploration.

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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