Amazon with Bruce Parry, BBC2

Did we like it?
This was a good (if ponderous for 10 minutes) start to what should be an extremely interesting series. Bruce Parry is engagingly enthusiastic, although he occasionally fails to provide full explanations and seemed a bit lost at times. Perhaps it was the coca leaves.

What was good about it?
• The early fantastic scenes in Peru at the source of the Amazon: the baleful sobbing of an alpaca as it was sheered, the dancing – even raving – of a small boy to the radio and the colourful caravan of llamas, donkeys and people accompanying Bruce to the next stage of his journey.
• You had to admire Bruce’s courage. He admitted to not being the best swimmer (which would seem to be some sort of pre-requisite for doing a documentary on the largest river on earth) but still braved the rapids, candidly admitting: “I am cacking it,” as if he was a 12-year-old about to go on the Stealth ride at Thorpe Park.
• The whole section about the production of cocaine was really interesting, from the news that a grower of the coca leaves would get just $100 for a whole harvest, to the losing battle the military are fighting against production and trade. It was also sobering to note how the process starts, by leaving the leaves to rot a bit followed by a sort of refining process that involves kerosene, bleach and sulphuric acid. We suddenly realised that years of worrying about the hygiene on top of the toilet cistern prior to snorting is actually the least of our worries.
• The complicated system of making cocaine involving so many stages and chemicals made us wonder how on earth someone stumbled upon the method of making it in the first place.
• The drama of Matt the Director’s illness, which looked extremely worrying. Eventually it was attributed to an abcess on the brain. Fortunately, he has fully recovered.
• The tension between the Ashaninka people and the coca farmers was palpable, particularly when Bruce visited one of the Ashaninka villages. Quite quickly it was clear that he should leave for his safety and for the village’s safety (he also seemed to be taking a couple of stray female backpackers with him). Of course he could have just called in Ross Kemp to help, but on balance it was more sensible to mosey on down the river.

What was bad about it?
• Bruce falls into some familiar traps that can become grating. He called the first Peruvian family ‘generous’, which they had been, but then he had to ruin it by adding that he ‘admired their dignity.’ Seriously, if just one more travelogue presenter meets some poor people and tells us he admires their dignity we will petition for some kind of jail sentence. It’s a mindless, patronising codeword for saying people are poor but don’t complain, as if they know of any other life.
• Similarly, Bruce felt compelled to make the point that at home he just ‘switches on a switch’ for heat, whereas there, in the wilderness, they have to gather firewood every day. Thanks for that stunning insight, Bruce; I was watching my electric telly in a warm house with electric lights and electrically-toasted toast in my hand, and I hadn’t quite been able to make that distinction between my life and theirs.
• A few times we felt Bruce failed a little to give us some insight that we yearned for. He chewed coca leaves which he explained were bitter but were supposed to ward off altitude sickness, yet didn’t reveal what affect, if any, they had on him. Equally, he ate a strange porridge substance, extolling its virtues and explaining helpfully that there were no E numbers, but didn’t actually tell us what it was or what it tasted like.

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