Taking the High Road

Article excerpt

Byline: CHRISTOPHER MATTHEW

Don't Look Down (BBC2); The Bill (ITV); NYPD Blue (C4)

THERE are few experiences in life more pleasurable than lounging back in the comfort of one's home, watching people undertaking tasks that are not only extremely dangerous, but completely unnecessary.

First, there was that wild-eyed Australian in khaki shorts who flew round the world in search of poisonous snakes and ended up a tree face-to-face with a green mamba.

Now, BBC2 has come up with an idea that is equally guaranteed to set one's palms sweating, and another man who is prepared to act out our worst fears.

He is a well-balanced character called Kevin McCloud who has spent most of his adult life designing tall buildings. He has only one phobia: he suffers from vertigo.

Stick him on anything more than a few feet above sea-level and he is seized by an overwhelming desire to throw himself off.

So what does he do? Only sets out to climb some of the tallest buildings in Britain, including the spire of Salisbury Cathedral and the Jodrell Bank telescope.

If Mr McCloud himself is to be believed, it's partly to see what holds them up - 'apart from sheer arrogance' - but mainly as a kill-or-cure antidote to his vertigo.

He may be telling the truth or he may not. We have only his word for it. But we can be sure of one thing: the real reason the series got made is that it makes for cracking good television. The fact that Mr McCloud happens to be another in a long line of TV naturals must have helped no end.

In last night's opener, he spent three days shinning 340ft up the Forth railway bridge. Having confessed that he was no climber, we might have expected to see him being given some instruction, if not landing in some real scrapes.

In the event, despite a lot of face-pulling and scrambling for footholds and puffing and panting, and muttering things such as'I'm not very good at this' and 'I really don't want to fall off', he never looked to be in any serious danger - except, possibly, from getting tangled up in his cat's cradle of mountaineering ropes.

The old black-and-white archive shots of riggers and painters strolling, unroped, up the spars were far more anxious-making.

But then, people fell off regularly.

The bridge has claimed 60 lives in 110 years, 57 of them in the six years it took to build.

AND when McCloud was not edging his way along slimy, narrow planks, or swinging free in horizontal rain - 'Just a rope and a lump of metal between me and eternity' - he was reliving engineering history with experts and human dramas with survivors.

Some extraordinary tales were told, not least by Mrs Marshall, who lost her husband and son to the bridge but still thinks of it as a friend; and a civil engineer called Douglas McBeth gave the same demonstration of a cantilever, using human beings, as the original designers, Fowler and Baker, had done more than 100 years ago. …