Origins of Us – nature’s story with Dr Alice Roberts

Origins of Us LogoOrigins of Us, the new Natural History three-part series from BBC Productions currently airing on BBC 2 (and on BBC HD and iPlayer, the latter subject to usual time constraints), explores human evolution.

It aired after Channel 4’s new series Brave New World with Stephen Hawking  it exploring how science is striving for humankind’s next leap forward. A welcome two-hour celluloid science session of a Monday evening. I am hoping the BBC and Channel 4 get embroiled in an escalating TV science war vying to produce and schedule ever higher quality and ever greater quantity of science programming, an antidote to the endless cookery and home improvements shows that saturate our schedules. And I am not averse to a Sophie Dahl or Kevin McLoud but all things in moderation – even Crime drama’s have their limits, just about!

The opening one-hour episode of Origins of Us is called Bones, the next episode is Guts and third and final episode is Brains.

The aim of the series then is to explore the evolutionary development of humans focusing on our bones, guts and brains.

Origins of Us Episode One BonesThe programmes are presented by Dr Alice Roberts. Viewers may be familiar with her from archaeological programmes such as Time Team and Extreme Archaeology – proving that presenters of archaeology programs don’t have to be living fossils themselves.

Archaeology and Natural History are a natural enough step (sorry!) though Origins of Us is not Dr Alice Robert’s first foray into Natural History programming or indeed those specifically about Natural Selection having presented the BBC series The Incredible Human Journey and an episode of Horizon earlier this year titled ‘Are we still evolving?’.

Origins of Us Sahelanthropus

Skulls of Sahelanthropus or Toumai – and Chimpanzee – which is which?!

Are indeed Natural History TV Presenters still evolving? Some may have argued that David Attenborough is that roles natural full-stop but Dr Alice Roberts does prove otherwise!

Dr Alice Roberts herself is not just a TV presenter but author, Anatomist and Physical Anthropologist.

She is an engaging, impassioned and informed presenter. The content of Origins of Us is presented in an accessible way so as not to be so dry as to verge on an Open University Documentary Tutorial, but not dumbed down to insult our intelligence either.

The first episode ‘Bones’ looked at how our skeleton reveals the evolutionary journey of our ancestors. The BBC webpage for this program explains more about the purpose of the series and the background of Alice Roberts.

In their words this program is ‘a journey through your own body, 6 million years and 300 000 generations of our family, from a tree dwelling ape in the forests of Africa, to you and the six billion other humans on Earth today.’ The BBC’s Family Research series Who Do You Think You Are? for the whole of humankind.

The web-page also provides some great art visualising our ancient ancestors from Propliopithecus right up to we modern Homo Sapiens.

There is also a link to Dr Alice Robert’s blog on the series. She also has her own website. Or if you prefer to digest her thoughts in bite-size she tweetstoo.

Homo heidelbergensis

Homo heidelbergensis

The nub of the first episode was exploring what it was about we humans that caused us to diverge from our nearest animal relatives chimpanzees and to look at the first forest dwelling ape to stand up on their own two feet and walk, six million years ago in Africa.

The program commenced in the jungles of Uganda observing chimpanzees in their natural forest habitat and examining how their anatomy allowed them to climb and then jump from tree to tree as oppose to how ours is built to allow us to be upright, to walk and to run.

The show goes on to explore variations in our skeleton to that of a chimpanzee such as how our spine joins to our skull, the shape of our hands and feet (did you know that 25% of your bones are in your two hands?!) and of surprising significance to me at least the role of our posterior in our human motion.

Origins of Us Babies in motion

Early Ascent

One charming section of the program exploring human motion saw Dr Alice Roberts among a group of babies and toddlers – some of them walking, some of them not quite there.

A later section has Dr Alice Roberts wired up as she is monitored on a running machine exploring the surprising muscle combinations required for this such as a ligament in our neck essential for keeping us balanced when we are running.

Origins of Us - Running Machine Alice Roberts

Dr Alice Roberts on Running Machine

As I share this with you I am sitting down in front of my iMac – typical of my sedentary lifestyle – and typical I suspect of the majority of you reading this. But as Alice Roberts points out even the most active of us today is sedentary compared with our first human ancestors who spent most of their time not even walking but running – for prey, for safety, the proverbial fight or flight.

Finally the first episode explored our tool-making abilities with the perhaps surprising revelation that it was not the making of tools that defined us from the other apes but how we made use of those tools.

Also a quick mention to the musical soundtrack by English composer Niraj Chag though it should be added that the sounds of the African jungle were captivating enough.

Origins of Us

Chimpanzee and Human skeletal hands – we are the big thumbed humans…

I am greatly looking forward to the next ‘Guts’ episode.

Top Gear – boys will be boys

Top Gear Logo

TTop Gear Presentersop Gear recently ended its seventeenth season – though it never really goes away from our screens with Dave airing it on a seeming infinite loop. It usually manages two series per year which is a testament to its viewing figures and the esteem and love its audience hold for it.

Top Gear has been around – it first began its BBC run back in 1978 when not just motoring journalists hosted it but other British media luminaries of the time such as newsreader Angela Rippon, Radio One Disc Jockey Noel Edmonds and long before she crossed from Tennis player to Tennis Broadcaster, Sue Barker.

The current all bloke line-up of Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond came following its brief demise in 2000 and return in 2002 with only Clarkson himself a survivor from the previous incarnation. For though Top Gear was back it was changed.

Top Gear DaveIt was now no old banger – rather a BMW Mini makeover had taken place.

It very quickly hitting upon a winning formula and since has not veered too far from it, very much going on the approach ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’. To its large audience this means Top Gear is dependable but also that they may take it for granted – any episode can be missed as watched, since any program is very much the same – and again there is always Dave.

What this formula entails following the musical introduction – which is a slither of The Allman Brothers Band’s Jessica – is in no particular order:-

a) one or more of Clarkson, May or Hammond testing out new, usually high-priced high-end, cars around a race-track (Dunsfold Park Aerodrome in Surrey, England) followed by resident racing driver The Stig racing the same car around same track toward a lap time recorded on a leader board

Top Gear The Stig

The Stig

b) some brief chat from the three middle-aged middle-class motorhead presenters about car related news seated around a TV screen

c) some adventure or challenge – usually allowing at least one of them behind the wheel of again a high-priced high-end car – often in a foreign country and with often a very tentative relevant motoring justification – as it really is messing about in cars

d) the star in a reasonably priced car (which currently is the Kia Cee’d) and the only regular appearance indeed of a car most of us viewers could afford to buy – and which section involves Clarkson interviewing the star – which after some brief chat about their current work activities then looks at their car history followed by them racing the said Kia around the track (after some tuition from their resident racing car driving The Stig) of which a leader board is kept of all their lap-times

Top Geare) another feature comparing the specifications of two or three super-cars which again is yet another opportunity for at least one of the presenters to get behind the wheel of them all and have a fun-time

The Stars in the Reasonably-priced Cars have been getting quite ‘A List’ of late too – the last series saw both Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz appear together – and both recording the then fastest series times respectively.

Some features though have been retired such as The Cool Wall when photos of cars were stuck up on a board based on their cool factor from sub-zero to seriously uncool!

Fifth Gear Presenters

The Channel Five Competition

Top Gear clearly is for Clarkson, May and Hammond a case of getting paid for something you love. Whether it really serves as a car consumer show is debatable. Its poorer more worthy cousin Fifth Gear on Channel 5 better meets that bill. Top Gear is more aspirational or even like a peep show for we the viewers – we are very likely not going to afford to own cars like this but we can enjoy them vicariously through Clarkson, May and Hammond. Others have called it Car Porn!

Part of the reason for that epitaph outside the presenters evident deep love for all thing cars (well petrol cars anyway – Diesel and Electric are routinely dogmatically derided – Clarkson referring to the former as ‘Diseasal’! and only slightly warming to Electric cars when presented with a Tesla) – is the way the cars are filmed particularly when they get to visit foreign countries or indeed get to drive around the British countryside with outstanding panoramic and aerial landscape shots forming the backdrop for whatever car is currently being throttled – sorry tested!

James May Toy Stories

James May Toy Stories

Clarkson, May and Hammond are not merely Autocue-reading, talking-petrol-heads but authors of their own enthusiastic scripts. Each has hosted TV programs of their own of a similarly passionate and jocular style.

Clarkson has tended to opt for other car-related programs such as Speed and The Car Years whereas James May has used his new found fame to author and present programs about his other passions such as Man Lab for everyday chemistry and Toy Stories where he used the likes of Lego, Scalextric and Meccano to build toys on a grander scale then ever intended by their manufacturers! Richard Hammond’s programs tend to focus on blowing things up – which also explains a lot of the content on Top Gear! – most notably Blast Lab.

The blokish banter between them works in the way you could imagine them sharing a pint together – whether there is any closer friendship between them outside the show is doubtful. That also of course does not matter.

As said a car’s practicality and affordability is a trifling and passing concern on Top Gear – its looks, speed and power much more relevant. Absurd too some of the weight given to specs like 0 to 60 in 3.7 seconds – under what circumstances are most of us going to find ourselves needing to go from nought to sixty in three point seven seconds or indeed nought to sixty period! Fifty to seventy on a motorway perhaps but that is far too mundane for this program!

Top Gear LogoSimilarly quoting top speeds of cars of 200 mph+ – where speeds of 180 or 220 are much of a muchness – like so what! – and most cars even the aforementioned reasonably-priced cars can comfortably clock over 100mph and which also is redundant since most of us don’t live in easy distance of the German Autobahn rather in countries with speed limits much less than 100mph.

Finally testing out a cars prowess such as handling manoeuvrability and power by racing it around a track when most of us have no such access or need for our cars to handle such conditions rather that they should comfortably handle and manoeuvre much slower, often congested, roads of town and country.

Top Gear is an unapologetic celebration of the motor-car – it may not trouble itself with the modest and the mundane – but its pleasure in the special and the spectacular gets to the very heart and soul of the car – as modern marvels of science in themselves, and the joy and liberty in their ownership.

Top Gear is certainly one giant self indulgence – for its makers and for its presenters. But most importantly for its viewers. And for this it will continue to get away with it. Car for car’s sake.

Shooting Stars – 8th Season – the stars have been greeted, successfully seated…

Shooting Stars

Shooting Stars Vic Reeves & Bob Mortimer

Vic and Bob

This it can be assumed due to the hosts Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer’s falling in and out of love with their own creation than any great dissatisfaction from the BBC 2 controllers.

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer remain the chaotic hosts – a Gilbert and George veneer of normality and civility hiding an interior of strangeness and anarchy. Physically time has not changed them much – Vic more tanned, both a bit paunchier – but how about their comedy? – is it as surprising and surreal as those shows from the opening two series, or the format being over-familiar now and no longer catching us out, has it become as formulaic and tired as the quiz panel shows it haphazardly if semi-affectionately parodies?

Shooting Stars Ulrika Jonsson

Team Captain Ulrika Jonsson

The format remains the same – in no particular order the quick fire rounds, the dove from above, the club singer question-come-performance, the cartoon pantomime violence, the mock (crap!) prizes.

But the only human constant outside of Vic and Bob is Ulrika Jonsson who looks as mildly bored and bemused as she ever did as one the shows team captains, as did her original adversary Mark Lamarr – he eventually moved on whereas Ulrika remains under Vic and Bob’s spell – or perhaps in lieu of other work a reasonably lucrative contract?!

Mark Lamarr’s role was taken over by novelist Will Self and now by comedian Jack Dee – all three affecting a droll air and a feeling of wanting to be anywhere else but here in this team captain role – one assumes it is nothing more than an act but you are never quite sure!

Shooting Stars Gandalf at the Disco

Gandalf at the Disco

Jack Dee one presumes moonlighting in this role taking time out from Lead Balloon which as well as starring in he also co-wrote – a kind of UK Curb Your Enthusiasm with Jack Dee as Rick Spleen in the Larry David role – though as the final episode of series four of Lead Balloon was called ‘End’ perhaps not!

Another change is the score-master – the original Matt Lucas no longer in his role as George Dawes though I think a testament of his love for the show that long after Little Britain became hugely popular in both the UK and the USA he still appeared in that role up until 2009.

Shooting Stars Score-master Angelos Epithemiou

Score-master Angelos Epithemiou

Now though this role is taken on by Dan Renton Skinner as Angelos Epithemiou who is looking up at those shooting stars perhaps but whose feet are most certainly in the gutter.

As for the team members they are a gloriously random and perverse selection of folk of varying degrees of celebrity as they ever were – and where it seems at least one per episode is chosen due to their likely lack of familiarity with the show adding to their bemusement indeed bewilderment with its proceedings.

In this first episode of the new series this latter role was fulfilled by Brigitte Nielsen – who if not shocked was certainly astonished at Vic and Bob’s antics – taking them a little too much at face value I thought! She was on Jack Dee’s team along with Graeme Hawley who if you are not a Coronation Street fan you may not know who he is – the street’s serial killer now deceased! On Ulrika Jonsson’s team were comedian Ross Noble and celebrity Chef James Martin.

Shooting Stars guest Ross Noble

Guest Ross Noble

Comedy routinely subverts the quiz show medium – think QI, think 8 out of 10 Cats – but none as much as Shooting Stars where the format is almost an afterthought, and in which its invited panel-members no matter how famous and vocal often reduced to no more than a few lines as Vic and Bob comedy caper around all and studio sundry. And as per its format the winning team captain Ulrika Jonsson had to pick one of her team-mates to undertake a final humiliating and pointless challenge for a pittance prize – James Martin the unfortunate chosen for this episode who had to deposit various food stuffs into various tins secreted around the studio floor – yes really!

With the irreverence of Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer towards the format and their guests it is perhaps surprising the show has lasted as long as it has – yet it seems it is they themselves who were not able to shake of its yolk becoming seduced by the very panel quiz show structure they so lampooned. Other shows of theirs such as ‘The Smell of Reeves and Mortimer’ and ‘Bang, Bang It’s Reeves and Mortimer’ were not constrained by any such formulas and formats and their humour and sketches even more surreal and skittish – and which I liked all the more for that – but those very constraints of Shooting Stars paradoxically are what has sustained it giving them an anchor against the otherwise Will-o’-the-wisp nature of their comedy.

Shooting Stars may now be beyond its sell-by date but even in this less than fully savoury tasting condition I am still happy to consume another six half-hour doses of it for this series eight.

Britain’s Next Big Thing

Theo Paphitis

Britain’s Next Big Thing from Maverick Television hosted by Dragons’ Den’s Theo Paphitis recently came to the end of its seven episode BBC 2 run.

The proposition was for designers to come up with products to pitch to three British High Street businesses – Liberty, Habitat and Boots. This time they would be the judge not the Dragons in their Den. Theo would instead play the Evan Davis role presiding over the show and its budding designer-entrepreneurs.

The focus too would be retail products and we would see them not just to the pitch but beyond – through their manufacture to their final store display and sales promotion.

It was a fascinating process and series. Like ‘Dragons’ Den’ itself reminding that you have to have a good idea yet even that may not be enough.

For some the issue was of scalability – their products that work small-time may flounder both technically and as a business when produced on a more industrial scale.

Weston Scarf

And then your product in on display in Liberty yet it may not sell. And the problem of demand not just being its lack but its opposite – your very success may overwhelm you and prove the final nail of your undoing.

And if you should survive all that – well then no time to rest, the process starts all over again with your next product.

A designer’s life may be a romantic one but certainly not a sentimental one – warm-hearted perhaps, hard-headed most definitely.

I particularly enjoyed the Professor of Architecture, Richard Weston, and his beautiful silk scarves, which are based on mineral, fossil and stone designs and which are then digitally reproduced and then printed as sheets of silk.

But Britain’s Next Big Thing – what is with that title? Often my eyes would glaze past this on the schedule considering this must be yet another talent show dedicated to acting, dancing, singing – certainly not the talent of designing. It is just too generic and gives little indication of its subject matter. This caused me to miss a few episodes even when I had watched earlier episodes of the series!

Perhaps instead Britain’s Next Big Shopping Thing? Britain’s Next Big Entrepreneur…

Do you agree with me about the current title? And if so any suggestions of your own?

Meanwhile I am looking forward the next series whether it is called Britain’s Next Big Thing or not!