CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews TV: Rescuing whales? It’s like putting a big cat in a kitty carrier


John Bishop’s Great Whale Rescue 

Rating:

Who Do You Think You Are? 

Rating:

They didn’t have all these problems with Free Willy. The Nineties movie about a boy who sets out to release a captive orca into the seas made rescuing whales look like child’s play.

But the obstacles encountered by comedian John Bishop in his Great Whale Rescue (ITV) — as a team of animal experts attempted to take two beluga whales from Shanghai in China to a sanctuary off the coast of Iceland — were colossal.

Foul weather, red tape and the sheer expense of the project were just the start of John’s troubles. 

In John Bishop's Great Whale Rescue, whales' handlers tried to coax the 40ft creatures out of their pool and into hammocks — to be fork-lifted into container crates filled with water

In John Bishop’s Great Whale Rescue, whales’ handlers tried to coax the 40ft creatures out of their pool and into hammocks — to be fork-lifted into container crates filled with water

Obstacles encountered by John Bishop — as a team of experts attempted to take two beluga whales from Shanghai, China, to a sanctuary off the coast of Iceland — were colossal

Obstacles encountered by John Bishop — as a team of experts attempted to take two beluga whales from Shanghai, China, to a sanctuary off the coast of Iceland — were colossal

The real difficulty began when the whales’ handlers tried to coax the 40ft, one-ton creatures out of their pool and into hammocks — to be fork-lifted into container crates filled with water.

If you’ve ever tried to push a reluctant cat into a kitty carrier, you’ll know: the experience scars you, and so does the cat.

Beluga whales, it turns out, are remarkably like cats when it comes to confined spaces. They tend to thrash about a bit.

With the poles of the hammock wedged over his shoulder, the Scouse comic stood waist deep in water and tried not to get his legs broken by a convulsing tail.

By the time the first of the whales, Little White, was in the hammock, I was clutching at my hair in dismay. 

You wouldn’t think a beluga could look terrified, but this one’s mouth was contorted in an expression that was all too human. 

These animals seem to smile, but they can also appear to scream.

In the tank, her companion Little Grey was uttering pitiful squeaks and whistles. John’s face was racked with anxiety. ‘I’m emotionally drained,’ he said afterwards. ‘I’ve never had a day like this.’

I hadn't expected the story to be so dramatic, or that animal-lover John (pictured with Little Grey) would be such a great choice as presenter

I hadn’t expected the story to be so dramatic, or that animal-lover John (pictured with Little Grey) would be such a great choice as presenter

And the day got worse, because when the tanks were transported to Shanghai airport, ready for a flight around the world to the Arctic, the chief Chinese customs official had gone home and taken his rubber stamp with him.

We left the whales stranded beside the runway, and I am honestly on tenterhooks for the second episode tonight.

I hadn’t expected the story to be so dramatic, or that animal-lover John would be such a great choice as presenter.

And I didn’t know how sweetly adorable beluga whales would be. 

They love having their lips rubbed, rolling their eyes with bliss, like dogs getting an ear-tickle. Why they are called ‘beluga’ was not explained. 

They don’t give us caviar — that comes from beluga sturgeons, which are fish.

Perhaps beluga is just one of those names that used to be fashionable. 

Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker discovered on Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1) that her much-loved grandmother, Greta Verdun Bedford, was named after a World War I battle because in 1917 that was the trendy thing to do.

Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker discovered on Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1) that her grandmother, Greta Verdun Bedford, was named after a World War I battle

Doctor Who star Jodie Whittaker discovered on Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC1) that her grandmother, Greta Verdun Bedford, was named after a World War I battle

Family legend had it that Jodie's much-loved grandmother's middle name was a tribute to her oldest brother, Walter, who was killed at Verdun, in France

Family legend had it that Jodie’s much-loved grandmother’s middle name was a tribute to her oldest brother, Walter, who was killed at Verdun, in France

Family legend had it that Greta’s middle name was a tribute to her oldest brother, Walter, who was killed at Verdun, in France. 

But that family legend, Jodie cheerfully admitted, was probably a tall tale invented by her granny, a pub landlady who loved to be the centre of attention.

In fact, Walter wasn’t even at Verdun, though he did die from wounds sustained in the trenches a year later.

The paper trail that led to that revelation, and the emotional moment at his graveside, were full of the intrigue that makes this enduring show so enjoyable.

And well done to the director for resisting the temptation to call it Doctor Who Do You Think You Are? — such cheap puns are reprehensible.

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