Britain From Above Review
Other than Christmas Eve, when, to the excitement of my children, we track Santa Claus across the globe, Google Earth is underused to the point where Windows is now asking if it should be deleted. What is there to do with it beyond trying to find Area 51, searching for anyone sunbathing nude in the gardens on the day on which the Google plane flew past and looking for one's current (and previous) homes. Unfortunately, where I live is so remote that top secret military bases appear to be illustrated with a good deal more detailed. My house is sadly little more than one black blob amongst a lot of green and brown blobs. A life of peace and quiet leads to Google Earth passing me by.
Andrew Marr has no such problems with Britain From Above. His army of planes, helicopters and satellites track Britain from the skies so thoroughly that no stone, manhole cover or discard KFC bucket is left unturned in its survey of the country. So complete is its picture of Britain from the air that it's a wonder it hasn't led to a divorce or two as, in amongst the sight of combine harvesters, Post Office vans and black taxis, it didn't pick up an illicit affair or two in one of the travel taverns that line the nation's roads. Whether on a rooftop or in a helicopter, Marr looks down on our country and extracts a single theme from what he finds there to construct a programme around.
In the first of these, Marr looks at 24 Hour Britain, beginning long before sunrise and ending when the lights are going out and people are returning to bed. He takes in the patterns of everyday life, including, black taxis, bin lorries, rush hour traffic, telecommunication networks, shipping lanes (and containers) and how one man in a little control room in England controls vast power stations in line with the ending of EastEnders. Other episodes take a broader view of life, comparing London today with that of the forties (The City), how industry has changed the country (Industrial Landscape) and how the countryside, which was once small holdings hemmed in by hedges and ditches, has now become huge meadows over which GPS-controlled combines harvest the vast amount of corn that we need. Others look at how man has changed the shape of the nation (Man Made Britain) and now nature has resisted this (Untamed Britain).
There's usually something interesting in each of these six episodes. The sight of a camera scanning electricity lines from the front of a helicopter may not be the most interesting of things but lonely little blips that are individual cars becoming thick lines of motorists in the rush hour traffic is better. Similarly, if Untamed Britain promises us a look at the mountains and rivers of the country, and so it does in such an attractive way as is commonplace in this series, it also takes in the meeting of the tribes of Rangers and Celtic supporters at an Old Firm game. From the air and, less comfortably, on the ground, Britain From Above, finds patterns in the behaviour of man, discovering method even in the kid who takes the longest route possible to and from school.
Finding patterns is what Britain From Above does very well, not only in its spotting of trends in our behaviour but in the geometric appeal of what we have built in this country. This comes from seeing Britain in an uncommon way. A sewage treatment plant may not be particularly attractive when on the ground from where its smell is most pungent but the large baths in which our water is made good again have a certain appeal when seen from the air. Similarly, electricity pylons cutting through a corn field, a grid of paths in a park, vast fields of shipping containers and even tower blocks have an order to them that is only apparent when seen from above. Britain From Above does a fine job of spotting these and without much fanfare lets the viewer see the beauty in them.
Then there are the odd little things that catch Marr's eyes, be they the follies that dot the countryside, a gold mine in Northern Ireland or the seemingly aimless milling around of schoolchildren actually has some order to it. Even when an individual episode may not promise very much, such as a comparison between the Britain of the forties and that of today, Britain From Above always finds something that will be of interest. However, only 24 Hour Britain sustained this viewer's interest so completely and were the BBC to revisit this idea once again, that might prompt them to dust off the helicopters, parachutes and Andrew Marr's jumpsuit so to find out about a day in the life of the country. If this series tells us how Britain has changed so that we find ourselves where we are, let's hear how it is that we muddle through it daily.
Britain From Above was produced in HD and while a Blu-Ray version has yet to appear to bear the fruits of this, the corporation has done an excellent job of releasing Britain From Above on standard definition DVD. The interviews may be nothing special - they are no better than what you might see on a news channel - but the footage of the countryside is often spectacular. It looks as though it was shot over the summer with the daylight used to good effect to allow the sun to reflect off the cornfields, city high rises and seas and oceans. It even photographs the mist coming in on Snowdonia beautifully. The picture remains sharp throughout, so much so that places like Liverpool St. station, a rubbish dump and that Northern Irish goldmine have never looked better. On the other hand, the DD2.0 audio track is fine but is far from outstanding. It does a good job of presenting the soundtrack but there's little it can do with the hum of helicopters, the wind that blows across high-rises and the sound of passing cars on motorways.
There are two main extras on this set, Behind The Scenes (24m51s) and The Making of Britain From Above (13m52s) but there's quite a lot of overlap between them. Indeed, there's much less value in the second of these as, having watched the first, I'm not really that bothered about finding out about Marr's parachute jump once again. Instead, Behind The Scenes, in little two-and-a-half-minute episodes, takes us to Glastonbury, to libraries of air photographs, to the city and, of course, to airfields, as well as interviewing a stills photographer, to explain the making of this series.