Once, flogging through the jungles of Borneo back in 1980, I saw an extraordinary sight. A line of men were coming towards me, each bearing a different animal – a lizard, a frog, a snake. "Just filming for the BBC," they explained. And back went the poor creatures to their home – the zoo.
I was reminded of the incident by the BBC's Human Planet series, now coming to a close. Here was the Natural History Unit (NHU) at its best – dramatising humans just as it had always dramatised nature. But how much is any such splendid stuff on our screens actually, er ... real?
In the 1970s and 1980s, David Attenborough was the one to tell us about wildlife, David Bellamy did plants, and Jacques Cousteau underwater. People were handled by Disappearing World, Survival and The World About Us. Did we know then how much was staged? I suppose we were grateful for anything. Besides, film spools ran to only 12 minutes; if you didn't set it up, you missed it. Perhaps that's what made genuinely spontaneous events so dramatic – we all remember that gorilla and his Attenborough-hugging moment.
Then along came videotape. And in 1993 the BBC asked me to take on my trans-Amazon trek one of those little Hi-8 camcorders. That TV project failed when I felt inspired to capture the locals trafficking drugs. While I didn't manage to record what happened next – I was shot at by Pablo Escobar's mob – the footage of heaped cocaine was dramatic enough and I was commissioned to return. The result was Raiders of the Lost Lake – nothing fancy, but neither was it contrived. Indeed, the video diary format was almost too honest – I'm seen drunkenly singing in the bath, I'm stalked by a "jaguar" which turned out to be just an overambitious ocelot.
To me, the programme was appallingly tabloid; to the television world it was a triumph. And a revelation: seemingly, you could just let the tape run and run – no crew to hold you back. This cunning little device captured the moment, be it monkey-hunting in the jungle, or battling alone with Nelson the camel across the dunes. I found myself the first television adventurer; I had inadvertently created a genre.
But by my third BBC series viewers were tiring of the intrepid traveller and his daily toil. Blood and sweat was all very well, but what about the sweeping panoramas, the whoop of the gibbon? When it came to the glorious sounds and images captured by the camera crew, I couldn't compete.
Simon Atkins's 1996 ob-doc Seven Go Mad in Peru seemed to find an honest way forward – by combining video with film, a single director/cameraman might still decently cover a genuine expedition. But the problem remained – where were the glossy sounds and sights you got with a full crew? How could the cost of such an outfit be justified? One way was to broaden the programmes' appeal – they'd be made yet more "accessible".
Time to call in the military. Nowadays there are many exciting ex-forces, rough 'n' tough presenters, but one of the first was the former marine Bruce Parry, who fronted the popular series Tribe. Anthrotrash to the purists, it was also fresh and exhilarating. Parry saw "people simply as people" – a laudable line which ignored the fact that they sought out folks whose colourful habits and rituals would identify them as anything but similar to us.
It was a neat conceit – a bloke is immersed for a month in an alien culture. Cut out the director's prompts, the meals the presenter scoffs with the crew, and the viewer can relax in anticipation of another unadulterated package of the macho and bizarre. It was only a matter of time before a researcher had the idea of seeking out those naked cannibals in West Papua – no matter that they weren't cannibals when I lived with them 20 years before.
I'm being mean – Parry has since won a Bafta for a considered, sensitive series on the Amazon, and highlighted important issues in the Arctic. Besides, all of us presenters have colluded in the artifice, beginning with the unhappy illusion of embedding a crew in remote terrain. We are not talking a couple of geezers with a camera and microphone boom, the ones sometimes nowadays featured on screen. We're talking about these two plus the fixer, government official, cook, translator/anthropologist, and 10 carriers for their rucksacks, batteries, lights and lunch-packs. And the car to help the first overloaded car when it gets bogged down.
But don't think I'm not at it, too. Take the huge American series Expedition Africa, an epic that saw four "elite explorers" retrace the steps of H M Stanley in search of Livingstone: budget a rumoured $20m, crew of 120. Oddly, despite the scale of the production – the support crew's tented accommodation was like the set in Mash – the hullaballoo really did pass us, the four protagonists, by. We had enough on our hands without thinking about the crew filming us day and night – I collapsed with malaria, and then there were the horrors presented by the sponsor's car, an inadequate little creation we were periodically forced to drive.
It was only watching the finished programme that we found ourselves replaced by body-doubles in the title sequence; and your lovable hero was transformed into a surly Brit, forever head-to-head with a neo-con type Yank who in reality I quite liked. I still feel guilty about the crew forever ahead of us – whatever we were going through, they were doing it with heftier gear, and walking backwards.
And so to the vexed question of Edward Grylls. You don't need to see his script to know that many of his antics are staged – it's that cameraman lying in just that crevasse where Grylls cheats death once again. But the accusations of fakery levelled his way are, in part, a cultural misunderstanding. These programmes are made for Discovery; and whereas here in Britain travel-adventure programmes stem from a tradition of documentary film-making, the US tradition is rooted in entertainment.
TV is not totally real, nor ever can be. You want the truth? In my experience a zebra often takes an hour to die once struck by a lion – they lie in agony, being consumed by the pride while groaning and pumping out blood. It is unedifying – and too long. So the story has to be shaped and we understand that. We willingly suspend our disbelief. Likewise for the NHU. Do we realise, when we see the frog jump into the lake that the plopping sound is made by dropping a pebble into a tank? That when we see swallows flitting to and fro in perfect focus it's because they are constrained within two parallel planes of glass?
No. Because we don't want to know. This is the hazard inherent in those behind-the-scenes "making of" sequences – they give a certain insight into the technique of filming, but to reveal more would bring the whole edifice down. We cannot know the full truth or the magic would go.
Even so, I'll always slightly hanker for the days of the modest camcorder. As my executive producer, Bob Long, said as I parted on my first mission, "Remember, Benedict, whatever you do out there, don't fake it. The truth is always more interesting."
The wild bunch
Has lived among tribes in the far corners of the earth, tapping into local knowledge and shunning modern technology to bring remote indigenous groups to TV screens. Acknowledged as a pioneer of the "video diary" format in the 1980s, Allen, 51, has come close to death more than once: on his first trip he was attacked by gold miners who stole his possessions and left him with no option but to eat his dog; armed drug barons chased him through the jungles of Colombia on another. His travels – alone – through 1,000 miles of the Gobi desert were recorded in his 1998 book, Edge of Blue Heaven.
The former Royal Marine has also carved out a lucrative career from living with remote tribes. His televised escapades have made him a household name and spawned several books. The successful BBC series Tribe, which began in 2003, has taken Parry, 41, to some of the most remote areas in the world – in one episode of Tribe he even had his penis inverted.
Eton-educated Grylls, 36, has climbed Everest, crossed the North Atlantic in an inflatable boat, rowed down the Thames naked in a bathtub, and circumnavigated the UK on a jet-ski. Yet, during his Channel 4 series Born Survivor, he drew criticism for misleading viewers. In one episode, where he was said to be stranded in the wilderness in Hawaii, he actually spent several nights in a motel. In 2009, The Scout Association appointed Grylls as its Chief Scout, the youngest ever.
His fly-on-the-wall documentary Seven Go Mad in Peru was Big Brother for the gap-year generation. The 1996 film featured young Brits exploring deepest Peru, besieged by insects and weak with hunger. Atkins received plaudits as a single cameraman and director covering a real expedition. Less well known than Grylls and Parry, Cambridge-educated Atkins has nonetheless created a niche for himself, filming in Sudan, the Amazon and Borneo.
Finally, those broadcasting before the days of the self-aggrandising "celebrity explorer" still command respect for their knowledgeable authority. Audience ratings continue to hold up for programmes by David Attenborough, David Bellamy and Jacques Cousteau.