“Great Britain,” murmured Sir Trevor McDonald, as though the thought had never occurred to him before and, now that it had, it was almost too much to bear. But there was more. “A country of some of the most incredible views on Earth.”
I ran to the back window to check. A drunken 14-year-old urinated among the drizzling bin sheds. Her friends sat waiting on a sodden roll of carpet someone had kindly dumped.
“Remarkable coastlines and rich cultural landmarks,” Sir Trevor went on, striding purposefully up a hill in the general direction of a rich cultural landmark. British-sounding music swelled like heavenly hosts choking on Rich Tea Biscuits. “Iconic cityscapes and breathtaking scenery.”
Sir Trevor caught his breath and pushed his hands deeper into his solemn coat pockets. Green England lay spread below him. All thoughts of the carefree, mirth-filled hours we had spent together during NewsKnight with Sir Trevor McDonald were banished now. This was serious. “The diversity and splendour of this landscape makes it almost impossible to decide which view is best.”
He was playing it down, of course. That’s not merely an impossible task, it’s a literally meaningless one, too. But Sir Trevor has served ITV long enough not to be daunted by such trifles as the sheer pointlessness of going on. It’s a dirty job deciding Britain’s Favourite View, but, apparently, somebody has to do it. And, Sir Trevor explained, ascending in an enigmatic blue helicopter, the task has fallen to us, to you and I, and our premium-rate phonelines. A crack squad of celebrities, including Sally from Coronation Street, has been assembled to point out just where the sixteen nice views in Britain are. Then we must vote on which is nicest. Why? Ours is not to reason why.
Des Lynam went first, wandering Dover’s white cliffs in a sunny, soft-focus way that teasingly suggested he might be about to start advertising a life insurance plan for the over 60s. When he was 12, he rode his bike to the Seven Sisters cliffs for the first time. “Mother packed sandwiches.” He has returned often since, “to think my thoughts.” He drew a veil over just what thoughts they might be. But you could tell they were deep, and not without pain.
“Our Boys returning home…doodlebugs…Luftwaffe,” Lynam murmured on, warming to his theme. “Elgar’s music.” Those hallowed cliffs are crumbling now, he lamented. To prove it, he and a geological expert donned safety harnesses and approached the edge, where a deep fault line had developed and slice of sheared-off Sussex coastline hung precariously, aching to collapse into the sea far below.
Planting one foot on the wobbly side, Lynam straddled this fissure and gazed down into the chalky abyss between his legs, to his companion’s clear and genuine alarm. “You’re a braver man than me,” the geologist fluttered, confronted with the unanticipated image of seeing Des Lynam being broken to bloody pieces on the rocks below before his eyes. “Oh, I wouldn’t be doing it if I wasn’t wearing this safety gear,” Lyman replied, making it clear that, oh yes, he would, you know.
The music reinflated, Lynam and his cliffs faded in a patriotic epiphany, Sir Trevor McDonald buzzed somewhere overhead, and suddenly there was Rory Bremner, in Edinburgh. There are streets there, he explained at length. And a cannon.
From the glimpses of it you get on the news sometimes, whenever there’s a vast, mysterious explosion in the far north of the country, I’ve often wondered what TV is like in North Korea. Recently, TV in Britain has been getting close to how I imagine it to be: any time you tune in, a public figure is spreading his arms and hymning the nation’s glory, the screen filled with stirring landscapes and reassuring civil engineering. David Dimbleby and Griff Rhys-Jones are often at it, and that serious Scotsman who hangs around the coast, with hair.
The latest to join in is another Scot, Robbie Coltrane, who is less serious, and has a better hairdo. In B-Road Britain, he is driving from London to Glasgow, but not necessarily in that order, and by the longest route possible. Crammed into a tiny, shiny red vintage Jag convertible, as he goes gliding up and down bumpy, twisty little roads through impossibly green landscapes, it’s like watching outtakes from Noddy, but not unpleasantly so.
Along the way, he encounters nothing but eccentric things and eats asparagus. Not any asparagus. Not foreign asparagus, “from Peru.” But British asparagus, like Shakespeare ate, fresh plucked from our good British earth. It does make your pee smell funny, everyone who was asked agreed. Coltrane visited a good British toilet to discover. We heard him urinate. (TV Fraud Police take note: did he really urinate? Or was this a sly sound effect?) It smelled. But a good smell. A British smell. Breathe it in.
Published in The Sunday Herald, August 19 2007