Last Night's Television - The Enemy Within, BBC1; Daredevils, Channel 4; Life, BBC1
Unleash the beasts
Tuesday 13 October 2009
At the beginning of the BBC's monumental new natural-history series,
Life, we were shown some clever bottle-nosed dolphins off the coast of Florida, swimming in perfect circles and raking up the sand with their tails, so as to discombobulate the fish inside the circles, which then jumped out of the ring of disturbed sand straight into the dolphins' mouths. This remarkable spectacle was filmed from the air, and I cannot have been the only viewer so conditioned by modern-day television smart-aleckry that initially, Sir David Attenborough's commentary notwithstanding, I thought the dolphins were manufacturing the BBC2 logo. I had to remind myself that Life is on BBC1.
Once upon a time, of course, a new Attenborough series would have been on BBC2, as was Life's ancestor, Life on Earth, back in 1979. Nine o'clock on BBC1 in those days was reserved for Kenneth Kendall. But times have changed, and the colossal expense of a series like this, three years in the making, makes maximum exposure an imperative. Yet exposure is not quite maximised. Perhaps the most important chunk of Life's potential audience is either in bed or being ushered there at 9pm on a Monday. If only the scheduling were as brave and brilliant as the camera work.
Other than that gripe, I have only the usual superlatives. Genius is really not too inflated a word for the technicians behind this series, and Attenborough would, I'm sure, be the first to admit that narrating is the easy bit. On the other hand, it is never less than a joy to hear his reassuring enthusiasm for a planet that is supposed to be heading to hell in a handcart. Even at 83, he generally tops the list whenever one of those silly surveys is conducted to find who people would want as president, were this country to become a republic. But I'd go further than that. When I imagine God in human form, he might look like Kenny Rogers but he evokes Attenborough in all other respects.
The great man would doubtless wince at such a flight of whimsy, but anthropomorphism is unavoidable when watching epic wildlife documentaries; indeed, he sometimes indulges in it himself, as last night when he observed that a strawberry poison arrow frog climbing a tree carrying a tadpole, so that she might leave it safely in a tiny bathful of water collected in a leaf, was "like a human mother climbing the Empire State Building with a child on her back". My wife, watching alongside me, wasn't sure about this. "Yeah, but it has little suckers on its feet," she protested, only half-jokingly, not wanting to be out-mothered by a frog.
Elsewhere, we were left to our own anthropomorphic exercises. A praying mantis really looked strikingly like Sir Gerald Kaufman MP, and a lumbering hippopotamus reminded those of us of a certain age of Reggie Perrin's mother-in-law. But actually this hippo was a male, and had just lost an exhausting fight with another chap for the right to mount all the females in that stretch of river. Life showcases the many strategies animals employ to procreate and stay alive, although those twin objectives are sadly incompatible in the case of the female giant octopus, who in squatting on her 100,000 eggs is unable to go trucking around the northern Pacific looking for food and eventually starves to death. Even my wife had to acknowledge that, as an act of sacrifice, that probably beats giving up gin and unpasteurised cheese.
For those of you who missed this opening episode (repeated tonight on BBC4 at the more sensible time of 8pm), mere words can scarcely begin to convey how wonderful it was. In describing how three cheetahs ganged together to fell a galloping ostrich, Attenborough invoked another high-achieving Englishman. This "band of brothers", he called them, and it occurred to me that Life does what Shakespeare managed in his 38 plays, covering the full scope of tragedy, comedy and romance. And as an obliging little postscript, last night's programme ended with an answer for all of us who had spent the previous 50 minutes gasping, "How do they get these pictures?" The sequences in Antarctica alone relied on a cast of hundreds, including the Ministry of Defence, and a Frenchman with what looked like a small furry dog attached to his top lip, who is an expert at guiding ships through ice floes.
Another Frenchman was the subject of Daredevils, with reverse-anthropomorphism providing the episode title: "The Human Spider Returns". This is Alain Robert, who climbs up very tall buildings with no safety harness. The poison arrow frog at least does it for her kids; Robert does it for the kicks. I watched with my eyes popping out of my head, like the stalk-eyed fly.
And finally, The Enemy Within, Joe Bullman's inventive comparison between 19th-century anarchists and those modern-day Muslims with axes to grind and bombs to plant. If only the human being had evolved as satisfactorily as the pale-throated sloth, we'd be worthier of our astonishing planet.
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