overthinking the idiot box

April 10, 2006

Bonafide British Person C.J. Quinn covers the strange intersections between British television and American television in...

London Calling
David Attenborough Shows You The World

by C.J. Quinn

When I was a kid, I had one very clear career goal. Before I wanted to be a teacher, before I wanted to be a nurse, before I wanted to be a vet, even before I wanted to be a marine biologist (a surprisingly long-lived dream, that one), I just wanted to be David Attenborough.

Now about to enter his eighties, the man is an absolute legend. For decades now, he has brought the natural world into Britain's living rooms, surveying every aspect of life on our planet from monsters of the deep to mini-beasts in the shrubbery. The famous trilogy of series, Life on Earth (1979), The Living Planet (1984) and The Trials of Life (1990) were grand sweeps examining the world's rich variety of species, habitats and stages of life — later he turned to more specific topics such as Antartica, insects, plants, birds, mammals, and marine life.

David Attenborough is probably one of the BBC's most valuable brands. You know right away what you'll get when you hear those hushed, enthusiastic voice-over tones — breathtaking photography; fascinating natural science made comprehensible for family viewing, without stooping to patronise; a heartfelt, although not strident, plea for humans to be better caretakers of our world, and the comforting presence of one of TV's favourite grandpas to guide you through the world of natural wonders (in a poll this year, Attenborough topped the list of the 100 'most-trusted' Brits). When he was younger and somewhat more limber, Attenborough himself would often clamber into the frame in his programmes, unable to keep the grin off his face while whispering into the lens six feet from a family of mountain gorillas, for example. These days, he sticks to narrating from off-screen, in a voice as British and as comforting as a hot-water bottle on a cold night.

A new Attenborough series is a landmark event, and the best kind of water-cooler TV, because you actually feel cleverer for having watched it.
A new Attenborough series is a landmark event, and the best kind of water-cooler TV, because you actually feel cleverer for having watched it. His new offering, Planet Earth, is being screened in two chunks on BBC 1 this year, at 9pm on Sundays, the perfect time to snuggle down on the sofa for a little end-of-weekend soothing natural eye-candy. Each episode is themed around some key aspect of life on Earth, such as 'Fresh Water', 'Seasons' or 'Caves'. It's been appointment television for me from the first episode, and provides an unfailing source of conversation on Monday mornings with both colleagues and students (although the kids' comments tend to stick at the level of 'Whoa, did you see dat pink dolphin, Miss, dat was well weird wonnit?').

The series has taken ten years to put together, and it shows. Not a second of footage is dull or superfluous, and new filming techniques have allowed the BBC's Natural History Unit team to bring unbelievably vivid spectacles to the screens. Planet Earth makes stunning use of satellite and aerial filming to show us giant dust storms sweeping the Sahara, millions of caribou crossing the tundra in the world's largest land-based migration, or the Siberian taiga and African Okavango delta bursting into green life as spring arrives. The camera lens seems to swoop, soar, float and descend like some great bird of prey, and can take us from high above the planet to the specific, singular drama of a wolf chasing a lone caribou across the tundra, or an elephant and her baby lost in the swirling dusts of the Kalahari.

Although the series still makes much use of the traditional ground-based camera crews, earning their crusts by trekking in the Hindu Kush for three months to get three minutes' footage of snow leopards and so forth, the helicopter-based filming has produced many of the most spectacular moments so far. Planet Earth uses the heli-gimball filming technique for the first time outside Hollywood or major TV ad production. A camera, controlled remotely from inside the chopper, is mounted on a gimball on the belly of a helicopter, and gyro-stabilised, meaning it can swivel and swerve through 360 degrees. Using extremely high-powered lenses, the chopper crew can hover up to a kilometre away from the subject, so that the animals are not disturbed by the noise or sight of the helicopter, and still obtain footage that looks as though it were filmed from about ten feet above the ground. The wildlife can then be put into the context of the epic landscape in which it is found, and footage obtained from very remote or hostile environments. In the first episode, this technique was used to film a pack of African hunting dogs pursuing impala, giving a cohesive bird's-eye view of the pack's hunting technique, and also producing a heart-stopping chase sequence as dramatic as any action movie.

Heart-stopping, breath-taking, stirring — this is the first series I can remember in a long time that has really lived up to those descriptions. I found myself on the verge of tears at the end of the first episode, in the way that just occasionally a really great piece of music or theatre can stir up inexplicable emotion. There are moments in Planet Earth when you find yourself literally holding your breath in disbelief, heart racing, such as the sequence showing Great Whites attacking sea lions off the coast of South Africa. Film of a striking shark was slowed to 1/40th of a second to show how the giant muscular bulk of the fish leaps and twists as the jaws close around the prey, lifting its entire body several feet clear of the water before it crashes back down. Slowed down this much, the footage looked like something out of The Matrix, a spray of water droplets barely moving around the fish's soaring and thrashing body.

I find myself in complete agreement — this is what the BBC does, and what it should keep doing for generations, public-service broadcasting at its best.
The BBC has just launched a new branding campaign, entitled This is What We Do, focusing on how the corporation's staff go to extraordinary lengths to deliver great television. Subjects for the trails include John Simpson and his news crew 'liberating' Kabul, the commissioning of The Office, and a cameraman perched perilously between Iraqi and British troops during a night-time battle. The fourth spot tells the tale of the Planet Earth team's efforts to catch a snow leopard hunting on camera. I find myself in complete agreement — this is what the BBC does, and what it should keep doing for generations, public-service broadcasting at its best. I may not be best pleased that some of my licence fee is going on buying Tracy Emin's bird sculptures, but I'll never begrudge the Beeb the money it spends on bringing the world's wonders to my little London living room.

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Return to Season 2, Episode 14.