Last Night's Viewing: Natural World Special: Living with Baboons, BBC2 The Toilet – an Unspoken History, BBC4


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Anthropomorphism fell out of favour a long time ago in natural history films, all that Disney personification being felt to get in the way of a dispassionate scientific presentation of the facts. But you wouldn't have known it from the opening lines of Rob Sullivan's Natural World Special: Living with Baboons. "As with all families, sometimes they fall out," said David Attenborough with avuncular condescension, as two hamadryas baboons tore chunks out of each other. Shortly before, he'd described the troop veterans as "wise old grandparents who've seen it all before".

But then, just as you were getting a little grumpy, the impatience was checked by an unexpected reversal. Mat Pines, the Australian biologist who has given up five years of his life to study the Ethiopian hamadryas, confessed that he wasn't entirely sure what his status in the group was: "I don't know know whether they consider me as another baboon," he said.

The possibility that baboons might be subject to primatamorphism underlined the fact that with some animals emotional identification may not be a failure of biological clear-sightedness but the acknowledgement of a genuine kinship. Perhaps we really should see in this small group of primates a mirror of ourselves, or at least of our primal instincts? If so, you'd have to say that Living with Baboons offered a most unflattering reflection. Mat absolutely loved his baboons and was having some difficulty imagining how he would live without them when his research project comes to an end. But to the casual observer they looked like absolute sociopaths.

To be fair to him, Mat did recognise that the hamadryas lacks finesse when it comes to certain aspects of contemporary human society. "If you're ever to be reincarnated," he said at one point, "I wouldn't come back as a female hamadryas... life's pretty tough for them." He wasn't kidding either. Their best hope, frankly, is to get raped by a reasonably strong baboon so that they don't end up being passed from paw to paw. But even then they'll have to be careful not to step out of line. The standard punishment for disobedience appears to be a savage nip to the head, leaving the less biddable females looking like French fraternisers shortly after they'd been tarred and feathered.

It didn't look enormous fun being an infant either, though there were some charming scenes of babies at play. If you're carrying the wrong genes you may end up being murdered by your mother's new partner – as happened here to one luckless infant – and if you're not you can end up as collateral damage in one of the regular fights that break out. After an all-out war between two groups disputing property rights on the clifftop palisade where they lived, one young baboon was shown with an arm scooped to the bone by some attacking male. Everywhere you looked, there was a spectacle of sexual violence, abuse and pitiless indifference to the weak. It was like The Jeremy Kyle Show minus the cliffhanger DNA tests. The film ended with Mat's attempt to persuade the local Afar tribesman that the baboons could be of value to them as a tourist trap, but you couldn't help feeling they'd be a lot better off with meerkats.

The Toilet – an Unspoken History began as Horrible History and ended as something altogether more earnest, though no less interesting for that. Ifor ap Glyn's brief history of lavatorial arrangements began with the Romans and ended with Bill and Melinda Gates's mission to build the world a better bog. A less boggy one, to put it simply, which could use human waste as the fuel source for the process used to dispose of it. "We want to have a solution that will spread virally," said the man heading up the team that aims to produce "the cellphone of sanitation". I think he might want to rethink his choice of words there. But the ambition is unimpeachable.