Drama of a pink tornado

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Savage Skies. ITV. Sundays 6.30-7.30pm until June 8

Prepare to be scared, says the publicity for Savage Skies, very, very scared. And when you see a tornado, a column of black air, speeding across the mid-West American plains and turning a summer day into a nightmare of uprooted trees and shattered homes, you can see what scary means. Yes, bad weather is no picnic.

In four episodes, with hip names such as "Riders on the Storm" and "Monsters from the Deep", Savage Skies uses archive film and new footage to explore some of the world's most dramatic weather conditions, from hurricanes in the Caribbean to the freezing snowscapes of Siberia.

As well as amateur video film shot by people caught in natural disas-ters, the series features some emotional eyewitness testimonies. In the first programme, "Fire and Rain", these include survivors of the flash flood which destroyed Lynmouth, Devon, in August 1952.

Not only are natural conditions shown, but human geography also gets a mention. We meet the Bombay umbrella-maker who's waiting for the monsoon and the American farmer who lost $45,000 in minutes during a hail storm. But if the visit to the Miami hurricane centre is fascinating, the glimpse of Richard Horodner, a man obsessed with chasing hurricanes, is sensational rather than informative.

When it comes to explanations of climate, these are too brief to be useful, and normal conditions get far less attention than nature at its most freakish - the humble cumulus cloud is shoved aside by the ferocious anvil-shaped thunderhead, a cloud as "powerful as a nuclear bomb".

Likewise, soundbites push out analysis: a typical phrase about the "brutal genesis" of a cyclone calls it "the atmosphere's most terrifying and mysterious life form". "For those," intones narrator Ian Holm's doom-laden voiceover, "who have once met the full power of weather face to face, life will never be the same again."

Similarly, the constant use of time-lapse photo-graphy and speeded-up film gives the erroneous impression that nature is a Speedy Gonzales dashing around at more than the 260mph spin of a tornado. The proud boast that the series was made "without one single special effect" is untrue.

For classroom use, Savage Skies has the power to show the unusual - and some of its pictures really are worth a thousand words. Examples include the tornado that turned pink when it tore through a nursery of geraniums and the cluster of electrical storms seen from a spaceship.

But the attempt to show how all the world's weather is linked doesn't come off. We are told that the depth of snow in the Himalayas and the temperature of the Pacific Ocean affect the monsoon in India, but not how this works or why the monsoon should ever fail.

And some material is distracting. The fact that Ed Verkaik, a cloud photographer, handles his camera with the stump of an amputated hand and is half-blind makes him more interesting than the mackerel skies he photographs. Teachers will need to use this video - which hypes itself as "violent and dramatic" - with care.

* Savage Skies is available on Warner Vision video, Pounds 19.99.

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