Last Night's TV: Madagascar/BBC2
A History of Ancient Britain/BBC2
Thursday 10 February 2011
It's a little early to say whether Outcasts is going to be a hit or a space turkey. If it's the latter then nobody's going to have to worry too much about exoplanet locations for science-fiction series, since it will have effectively scorched the Earth for at least the next five years. If it works, though, there's going to be something of a rush on for vistas on this planet that look like they're on another. Might I suggest an early provisional booking for Madagascar, a wondrously unfamiliar landscape that comes helpfully accessorised with an otherworldly ecology. More than 80 per cent of the species are found nowhere else on Earth, which helps to maintain the frisson of alienation, and what's more many of the animals even sound like they've been invented by a science-fiction writer. Anyone for the tenrec, a kind of elongated hedgehog that produces a litter of up to 32 tiny (and spiny) little tenrecs? And if that doesn't take your fancy what about the fossa, a giant tree-climbing mongoose with a pair of vampire fangs? Or the sifaka, a white lemur that gallops sideways through the undergrowth?
David Attenborough has been in the business of making the planet look out of this world for decades now, and Madagascar revealed that he (or at least the film-makers he was introducing) can still do it. The first of a three-part series about the natural history of what Attenborough described as "an orphaned chip of land", it was full of wonders, and landscapes that seem to have come straight off a set designer's drawing pad. Madagascar is only a "chip", incidentally, if you're looking at it from a very long way up, because the island is around a 1,000 miles long and marries a range of habitats and climates. But because it has been separated from Africa for so long, evolution has seethed and bubbled in unique ways – "an evolutionary cauldron producing extreme forms of life".
The lemurs are the A-list stars here, as large and liquid-eyed as any Hollywood ingénue, though with quite a bit more body hair. But the supporting cast is pretty amazing too, from a frog with a skin like an oiled tangerine and beetles that look like ambling boot-brushes to the giraffe-necked weevil, a bright-red bug that can extend its head above its body on a kind of extendible boom. While the males whacked each other around with this appendage (neck measuring again, boys?), the female crimped and nibbled a nearby leaf into a kind of bassinet for the single egg she would deposit after being fertilised by the winner. Below her, miniature chameleons, about the size of a large ant, inched arthritically across the forest floor, their ribs a perfect match for the veins of the dried leaves they were walking through. And then the camera lifted you across plains of baobab trees and over the startling landscape of the tsingy, an area of eroded karst that is like a field of stone blades liberally sprinkled with lemurs. All to the seductive soundtrack of David Attenborough's narration, so precisely judged in its sense of when to marvel and when plain information will be marvellous enough on its own.
I wish other broadcasters would pay a bit more attention to him, not so much to the vocal tones, which they can't emulate, but to the rhetorical method, which they usefully might. Attenborough's approach to storytelling typically takes the form of a close-up at first, highly specific in its details and slightly teasing in its withholding of information. Then he pulls back, so that this one element is both placed within a grander perspective and gives it a due sense of scale. You're hooked, effortlessly and elegantly. The default method for a big instructive series now though tends to be just the opposite – a bombardment of epic promise and orchestral bombast that keeps deferring the gripping detail, so anxious is it that you will understand the scale of the enterprise you're embarking on. A History of Ancient Britain was a good case in point. Attenborough, I think, would have understood that the perfect place to start came about five minutes in, with the captivating sight of fossilised human footprints – 8,000 years old – emerging from estuary mud in Wales. It had everything – a genuine sense that something was being unveiled for you, a powerful emblem of human presence. But to get to that arresting moment we had to sit through the usual boilerplate introduction, complete with sweeping helicopter shots of the presenter standing on a rocky headland and language that ordered you to be impressed and awed, rather than simply getting on with the job of impressing and awing you.
It mattered particularly here because prehistory is hard to do. Those lives are so distant from ours, and have left such meagre evidence behind (a shin bone and two teeth counts as an overflowing treasure) that enlisting our imaginations is more important than usual. Fortunately, Neil Oliver – wild of hair and extravagant in language – can actually do it. There was an intriguing moment much later when he spent some time with an even wilder-haired expert learning how to live the Mesolithic way, carving bone harpoons and bedding down under a deerskin tent. Unfortunately, someone's encouraged him to include regular bulletins on his own sense of wonder and astonishment and excitement, rather than concentrate on exclusively on the delivery of fact. It's strange how deadening enthusiasm can be if you're given too much of it.
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