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Serious Desert

Thursday, January 1, 2004 by

Children’s BBC have kicked off 2004 with just as much flair as they did 2003, courtesy of a much welcome and suitably good-natured post-Christmas treat.

Serious Desert has faithfully matched, if not exceeded, the efforts of its predecessor Serious Jungle in generating consistently exciting, believable and addictive TV. The premise remains the same: eight 12 – 15 year olds are dropped into a defiantly hostile environment on the other side of the world, then cameras roll as they struggle to complete a worthy challenge while bonding, moaning, falling out and generally having a laugh. But this is no mere re-tread of old ground. There’s the different location, the deserts of Namibia rather than the jungles of Borneo; the new mission, involving tracking the near-extinct black rhino; and best of all the entirely new bunch of kids, once more indulging in reassuringly familiar teenage mood swings and emotional hi-jinks.

Real continuity with the previous series comes in the shape of the project leader, Bruce. Reprising his role as the kids’ supervisor, confidante and all-around father figure, he’s now become a crucial element to the Serious … format. His avuncular, non-patronising patter and slightly comical bravado help to shepherd both his pupils and the viewer through the dangers and eccentricities of unfamiliar landscapes and cultures. There are moments where he drifts into a rather shameless Englishman-abroad caricature, striding purposefully about the place stripped to the waist, but he does prove crucial in helping to reconcile clich├ęd perceptions of life in the wild with the realities of desert survival. Plus he’s not afraid to tell the kids to knuckle down when they’re spending too much time pissing about.

Of course it’s all to no avail, because here are a bunch of moody teenagers in an unfamiliar location having to learn to get along with each other at the same time as confronting extremes of both temperature and terrain. This is where Serious Desert comes alive, and is at its most agreeable. Watching unsubtle, sometimes uncomfortably honest outpourings of feelings and temper from the participants was easily the strongest element of the previous series. This time we’ve an even more voluble and stroppy collection of adolescents, and consequently their bickering, flirting and joking has been all the more insightful and entertaining. Indeed, because everything that happens on-screen is packaged in such an unpretentious, upfront manner, with no attempt to dress up the angst or hilarity as anything other than what it really is, the pleasure is all the greater. You recognise instantly the types of behaviour on display, empathise with the kids’ knockabout approach to life in a foreign climate, and almost wish you could be that age again, joining in the fun.

This particular episode saw more than the usual helping of impassioned outbursts. Before the team had even embarked on the centrepiece of their adventure, a preliminary task involving the construction of a rudimentary camel enclosure brought all of the barely disguised group tensions and dynamics well to the fore. First there was the matter of Chris, the loner, who’d decided to sink into an archetypal teenage depression and was busy alternately moping about looking sullen or self-consciously slumping into a heap on the ground. Trouble was, being the tallest, he was the one most necessary to completing the enclosure on time. “The group feels he’s not doing enough work,” speculated Martin, the earnest diplomat of the bunch who’d already provoked his own interlude of consternation after gashing his face open on a rock. Now, boasting an unfortunately comical swollen pair of lips, he set himself to improving team morale. “We need to talk to Chris as a group,” he reasoned, besides trying to make more of a collective effort to involve him in proceedings. And this meant, for one thing, an end to outbursts from resident loudmouth Perry, who’d earlier bawled at his grumpy colleague, “Shut up, mate – it’s not even funny.”

Extended shots of the kids clumsily struggling to ingratiate Chris ensued, balanced as ever by sequences showing them engaged in various individual quests laid on by their hosts intended to broaden their understanding and experience of the climate. So we had a bit of wonderfully juvenile arguing, followed by a couple of scenes depicting the tracking of desert elephants, then back to the squabbling, and so on. All tribute to the programme makers for ensuring these cuts between different centres of activity didn’t make for jumbled, distracting viewing. Instead we were smoothly shuttled back and forth between unfolding events, timed so that just as we started wondering how things were going back in the previous location, we were suddenly there and in the thick of the drama once more.

The business of completing the enclosure was temporarily suspended for dinner, which trotted into view to an assortment of textbook groans and gasps of disbelief. Two of the boys, Perry and David, both keen to keep up a carefully cultivated “tough guy” image, volunteered to assist in the goat’s bloody demise. Everyone was shortly filling their faces and apparently having a great time, but the minute work had to be resumed, all camaraderie evaporated.

While the affable Ellie bubbled with a new-found crush for David – “I can’t be bothered to hide my emotions any more – he’s so fit!” – her friend Aimee stomped about slagging off all and sundry for not pulling their weight. “Doing funny jokes and doing impressions doesn’t build a wall,” she protested, later muttering, “The boys think that, because they’re boys, they know better, even if they’ve done nothing like this before.” Within minutes everyone was complaining, Martin announcing, “I’m the only one working at the moment, because the others are looking at a lizard on a rock,” and David confessing, “I’d rather be in double geography right now.”

It was a brilliant display of mass whingeing and self-righteousness, rendered all the more caustic thanks to the eerie, barren setting. It also amounted to a particularly fine climax to the episode, as following a pep talk from Bruce – “Just do it – it’s all in the head” – the group then decided to work right through the night to have the enclosure completed on schedule. Shots of the kids celebrating their achievement may have constituted a contrived ending, but their expressions of relief and mutual appreciation were assuredly for real.

Uncompromising in its depiction of youngsters trying to understand themselves and each other while all the time facing up to one of the most intimidating places on earth, the Serious … brand continues to demonstrate how reality TV is far from a moribund, fully-plundered genre. At least one further series is promised – Serious Arctic – and it will assuredly be just as successful as its two predecessors. A bunch of sulky teens trying to build igloos in between a bit of backstabbing and gossiping about who they fancy? Here’s to New Year 2005!

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