The course of true love might rarely run smooth for us humans, but The Mating Game proved that for those struggling with singledom in the animal kingdom, it can be even tougher.
It really was a jungle out there for the African antelopes risking their lives for love or for the wolves locking on to each other for a full 30 minutes while coupling, unable to extract themselves even when a “quickie” would have been far more convenient. In the wrong hands, this hour-long show could have been embarrassingly graphic. Mercifully, we rarely saw animals actually engaging in the act. Narrated by David Attenborough, this focused on the politics and power play of mating for myriad animals.
At times, it was hard not to anthropomorphise their behaviour and have a good old hearty laugh at the, well, humanness of their rituals (or perhaps at the animalness of our own). The six-plumed bird of paradise that trotted out his fancy feather-fluffing dance looked like the John Travolta of his world, while the topis that picked fights with rivals as the females stood watching could have been competing lovers in an EastEnders pub punch-up. The bird of paradise and his floor show was particularly amusing. In the preamble to the main spectacle, he cleared his dance floor with a little duster and sprinkled it with berries to lure in the ladies, like a cheesy romancer sprinkling the bed with flower petals or clutching a rose between his teeth. The female bird had no time for it. She nicked his duster and flew off before he hit the floor.
The visual marvels of mating rituals were set against just the right amount of “knowing” schmaltz: a kitsch soundtrack flipped on every time a courtship got underway, so we chuckled as polar bears cutely chased one another in flirtation against romantic piano music. But they were also utterly thrilling to watch as they roamed in the pure white expanse of snow and slid down powdery verges. A shimmering ocean of flamingos in Tanzania, meanwhile, appeared to be holding a gigantic singles’ convention in which they mirrored each other’s body language in the hope of bumping into “The One”. None of the comic absurdity took away from the documentary’s serious intent. “Courtship,” Attenborough told us, “is one of the few times that adult animals play together.” It is also one of the times it leads them to sing, dance, spray body fluids like perfume (lemurs seemed particularly partial) and generally show off. But at its most dangerous, the competition to mate also led to territorial aggression and fighting.
What became apparent was that, in the main, males did the strutting and females did the selecting, though there were some chasers among the latter, notably a mountain gorilla who gave the male silverback a meaningful gaze to advertise her availability. Some species stayed loyal, even waiting by their dead mates for days, such as the Australian shingleback lizard, while others were more “flexible” in their affiliations. Who said relationships were ever simple...
David Starkey’s Music and Monarchy shone a light on another kind of love: that between British monarchs and their choirs. Music, Starkey explained in large, dramatic tones, was not only a devotional expression that brought man closer to God but was wrapped up in the “politics of splendour”, and drew its own sectarian dividing lines. Henry V took a mobile choir to Agincourt as a form of musical prayer, while later, Henry VIII’s split from Catholicism led to a Protestant choral aesthetic that eschewed musical complexity in favour of the spoken word. Occasionally, a music bod came on to explain technical things like medieval polyphony (five parts, followed by eight parts), but the focus switched back to Starkey’s history, and to the heavenly sounds of the songs. Edifying stuff, though you couldn’t help but feel that the more perfect medium for this might have been radio.