When lightning strikes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 July, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 July, 1997, 12:00am

What is three to four miles long, an inch in diameter and five times hotter than the surface of the sun? Anyone in Hong Kong this week is more likely than most to come straight out with the answer, Lightning! (Pearl, 8pm), as we have had more than our fair share this week.

This documentary accompanies intrepid scientists (and one photographer) into the most electrically charged weather in the world to examine one of nature's most dazzling and dangerous displays.

Lightning strikes the Earth 6,000 times a minute, jolts every commercial plane roughly once a year, wipes out power to entire cities, hits 1,000 people annually and, on average, accounts for more deaths than tornadoes and hurricanes put together.

Which all make good reasons for scientists to study - albeit gingerly - these fleeting, sometimes fatal flashes of electricity.

Two centuries ago, Benjamin Frankling performed history's most famous lightning experiment by flying a kite in a storm.

The electrical charge that travelled down the wet string to a dangling key proved that lightning is a form of electricity, not a supernatural force as many believed at the time.

But while much is now known about lightning and its strength, its ability to disrupt electrical power over huge regions poses something of a puzzle, since power grids often are jolted at points where power lines are underground. In an attempt to find out whether lightning can penetrate a buried cable and turn off the lights, a team of scientists created the world's tallest lightning rod by sending a rocket, leading a wire, thousands of metres into storm clouds, inducing awe-inspiring thunderbolts just a few metres from the observers.

The experiment produces a dramatic piece of evidence: a zigzag of high temperature, fused sand (called a fulgarite) that snakes through the ground directly to a power cable.

It is, in effect, a chunk of petrified lightning caught in the act.

If there is one character actor who has played almost every exotic ethnic type it is Anthony Quinn.

The former prize-fighter born to an Irish father and Mexican mother has played everything from Greek to Indian, Eskimo to Bedouin. The Secret of Santa Vittoria (World, 1.30am), in which he plays an Italian, is an exhausting, comedy which reviewer Rex Reed rather beautifully described as 'a brainless farrago of flying rolling pins and rotten vegetables, filled with the kind of screaming, belching, eye-rolling fictional Italians only Stanley Kramer could invent'.

Still, it has its moments.

Which is something Monkeys, Go Home! (Pearl, 12.15pm) does not have.

The plot could only be devised by Disney - an American inherits an olive farm in France and trains monkeys to pick the crop, much to the consternation of the locals.

It's cheerful and good-humoured, but like people with such natures, it tends to bore.

What it certainly is not is a suitable farewell film for Maurice Chevalier, the epitome of French charm and sophistication, who apart from singing the title song in 1970s' The Aristocats never contributed to another film.

Juliette Binoche is one of the few actresses in the world who can play a one-eyed, gun-carrying painter and still look as delicate and lovely as a china doll.

She does in Les Amants du Pont Neuf (Pearl, midnight), which despite her usual spirited performance, is contrived and pretentious.