Dead Romantic: We Owe Our Sentiment over the Whale to Wordsworth and Co
Billen, Andrew, New Statesman (1996)
The Romantics (BBC2)
Although the story would soon end sadly, the most emotional moment on television last week was on Saturday afternoon when the stranded whale was finally lifted on to the Thames barge that would take it back to the sea. Calmed by its rescuers, the 18ft bottlenose, its great tail twitching, was winched aboard the Crossness to cheers from crowds on both embankments and, doubtless, from families at home watching it on Sky News.
The previous afternoon the news channel had gone, as it were, overboard in covering the whale's only occasionally visible progress towards Albert Bridge. In doing so, it lost sight, until nightfall, of the rest of the world. BBC News 24 soberly (perhaps properly) merely included Free Willy in its running order of items. But when the crucial moment came, Sky News proved again why people turn to it when news is really rolling. Whereas, inexplicably, News 24 carried no live pictures, on Sky News you got not only the moment of rescue, but a sense of the carnival atmosphere of a great city in one of its communal hours.
There were moments of absurdity, too. Sky interviewed a workman who had dived in to try to save the whale from running aground. In the heat of recollection he boasted, before correcting himself, that he'd been "first in to save the child". Meanwhile, presenters grappled with a lexicon of terms that included "dorsal fin" and "blubber index" (although "belly" turned out to be the correct term for a whale's belly). On News 24, the wildlife presenter Terry Nutkins was asked: "How do you reassure a whale?" All he knew was that he had once saved a humpback and he liked to think it knew what he was doing. "That was a nice romantic thought for me."
Here was a rare case of the adjective "romantic" being used more or less in its literary sense. To get the full definition you needed to watch the first of Peter Ackroyd's scintillating new three-part documentary series The Romantics (Saturdays, 8pm). Although the second episode (28 January) explicitly deals with nature, the opening instalment ended up with Coleridge's "Ancient Mariner", the moral of which, Ackroyd said, was that man must respect his fellow creatures. Seen in this light, the whale's rescue was civilisation's belated apology for the mariner who shot the albatross. Yet the sentiment the rescue evoked would have been quite alien to our early 18th-century ancestors. As Ackroyd says in episode two: "The way we respond to a sunset is a learned experience and one we learned from the Romantics."
The first programme's theme was "Liberty". It was Ackroyd's contention that the death of this original project on the tumbrels of the French revolution led the Romantics to take their quest for freedom into the heart of the natural world. …