Last Night's TV: Night of the iguana was unforgettable
Life in Cold Blood, BBC1; Nation on Film – Munich Remembered, BBC4
Tuesday 05 February 2008
Today's challenge is to write something about Sir David Attenborough that hasn't been written a thousand times before. Everyone knows that he's a national treasure, that he's Britain's most trusted person, that he's the fellow we'd make president if the monarchy, tomorrow, were to go the way of the dinosaurs. In fact, the only really original thing I've ever seen written about him was in one of those magazine questionnaires, when some comedian or other was asked to name the person he most despised. His answer was David Attenborough. Which of course was a joke, and quite a funny one, like when Ricky Gervais was asked what object he'd save first if his house was burning down and he replied "one of the twins".
In January 1979, Clive James in The Observer reviewed Attenborough's "miraculous" series Life on Earth. "Slack-jawed with wonder and respect," he wrote, "I keep trying to imagine what it must be like nowadays to be young, inquisitive and faced with programmes as exciting as these. Where was David Attenborough when I was a lad? Being a lad too, I suppose. The difference between us is that he still is."
Attenborough was 52 in January 1979. He is now 81. Yet his boyish exuberance is undiminished. I watched Life in Cold Blood, his study of reptiles and amphibians, and the ninth and last of his Life series for the BBC, with my sons, aged nine and 12. They were spellbound. That it is still possible to be "young, inquisitive and faced with programmes as exciting as these" almost 30 years after James wondered what that must be like, underlines what a wondrous creature Attenborough is. Indeed, try as he might to direct our amazement towards the armadillo lizard or the leopard gecko, it is hard, sometimes, not to train all of it on him. Oh, and even if Private Eye were to award me the Order of the Brown Nose, I would still have considerably fewer letters after my name than he does (13 at the last count, which is one more than there are in Attenborough).
Moreover, if he had never made a natural-history documentary in his life, he would still have contributed mightily to the history of broadcasting in this country. Last night's programme included some footage from Zoo Quest in 1960 (before their mother and I were born, I told my sons, although they didn't seem particularly interested, having by then watched lizards hatching and absorbed as much information as they could process about mating and conception), in which he went to Madagascar to look for chameleons. That he did so in monochrome shows what a difference 48 years can make. I'm quite sure that Zoo Quest was watched as raptly in 1960 as Life in Cold Blood was last night, but there's no doubt that, of all reptiles, chameleons are more telegenic in colour. And, neatly enough, it was Attenborough himself who, in the summer of 1967 as controller of BBC2, presided over the introduction of colour television. Tennis coverage from Wimbledon was the first to benefit, athough he must also have known what exciting implications there were for the South American waxy monkey frog (a ringer for Gerald Kaufman MP, incidentally, if last night's footage was anything to go by).
Anyway, that's paeans enough for one day. After all, the great man would be first to point out that an achievement such as Life in Cold Blood is a monumental collective effort. Besides, even without him there would still be technical wizards somehow able to get their camera equipment inside a flower, to watch a lizard cornering a fly. And let me also lavish credit on whoever it was who decided what music should accompany the pictures. There must have been a temptation to unleash the entire BBC Symphony Orchestra over pictures of fighting frogs and tangling tortoises, but someone in the BBC Natural History Unit is clever enough to recognise where background music belongs. Would that their counterparts in drama were as restrained.
So much for the sound; what of the spectacle? I am reluctant to pick a single reptilian star from last night's orgy of wonder, but hats off to the saltwater crocodile, which generally gets a rather bad press, but proved himself the tenderest of romantics, blowing bubbles at his mate and then sensually stroking her back. As Attenborough said, reptiles do not deserve their reputation for being primitive, dull and dim-witted.
Some football fans, by contrast, unequivocally do. Tomorrow is the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster in which eight Manchester United players and 15 others perished, and the Football Association is understandably nervous about holding a minute's silence before England vs Switzerland at Wembley, lest it be defiled by morons. Nation on Film – Munich Remembered not only recalled the crash – through the moist eyes of survivors Sir Bobby Charlton and Harry Gregg – but also an era in which common decency was in somewhat readier supply than it is today.
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