Howard Jacobson: Forget the polar bear. I once faked a kangaroo

I happily accept a little telly trickery, never supposing I am watching unvarnished truth

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It is to the credit of our versatility and resilience as a people that at a time of national calamity – our economy in ruins, half the population in negative equity and the other half on Facebook, feral dogs roaming our parks, a Prime Minister who would be feral but is capable only of savaging the Leader of the Opposition (a case for intervention by the League Against Cruel Sports), our young lying drunk in gutters, our old wishing they could find somewhere as salubrious as a gutter to die in, the French with their tails up – it is to the credit of our national spirit, I say, that at such a time we can find the energy to complain that television footage of a polar bear breastfeeding her cubs (not being a naturalist, I cannot vouch for "breastfeeding" being the correct term) was shot in a Dutch zoo and not the Arctic.

Something of a daddy polar bear himself when it comes to defending his progeny, BBC director- general Mark Thompson wonders if "this is really about polar bears or about Lord Leveson". Puzzling at first – because it leads one to wonder whether some of the footage of Lord Leveson we've been watching was shot in a Dutch zoo – Thompson's remark turns out to be a dig at the papers for using polar bears to get their own back on the BBC for giving so much airtime to Leveson. Seems a little far-fetched, but then the press, when cornered, is capable of equating wholesale and egregious fakery with the tiniest stretching of actuality, as we saw on Newsnight last week when an ex-editor of the News of the World compared a little late-night sexing-up on The Guardian's part with his own paper's ruthless round-the-clock venality. How long before the Daily Mail vengefully demands Sir David Attenborough return his knighthood?

Myself, I happily accept a little telly trickery, never supposing I am watching unvarnished truth filmed in real time, or that there is any such thing as unvarnished truth anyway. Once admit the existence of an editor and everything is a species of fiction. Since I watch in the spirit that I read – enjoying the elegance of the illusion – I ignore the bit tacked on to the end of every episode of Frozen Planet, showing how the filming's done, what ingenuity the cameramen deploy, what risks they take. That, to me, is like a novelist telling us how he goes about creating his effects before we've finished the novel. The means might be of passing interest, but it's the finished article that matters.

I recall a literal-minded reviewer of a travel documentary I once made complaining that, when I spoke of my fears of being alone in the Australian bush, I was deceiving viewers because I didn't mention there was a camera crew in attendance. As though viewers thought I appeared on their screens by magic. As though suspension of disbelief is a principle unknown to any but a theatre audience. As though the presence of a cameraman more frightened of spiders than I was took in any way from the terrors of the night.

While we're on the subject, now might be the time to confess that we, too, in the course of making that film, had recourse to a little wildlife legerdemain. Item one: a kangaroo. Item two: a snake. That you can't make a travel film about Australia without at least one shot of a kangaroo seemed axiomatic to me, though the director, the cameraman, and indeed everybody else involved in the filming – including the kangaroos themselves who bounded off into the bush the minute I began a piece to camera – thought otherwise.

The problem, as the crew explained to me, was that they couldn't just shoot the minute I shouted: "There!" They had to stop the car and root around in steel boxes. They had to check the light. They had to focus. The director had to say: "And... action." By which time the sun had set and the road was empty. Now, of course, you just stick your iPhone out of the window and don't even take your foot off the accelerator. But, in those days, we shot on film, glorious film, which meant that if you wanted a kangaroo – "If you must have your fucking kangaroo, Howard!" – you had to go to a kangaroo park.

The 18ft multi-venomous snake was different. The shot of it lying in the dirt as I drove off into the sunset, having dexterously missed it with all four wheels of my Jeep, was genuine in that the snake really was alive, really had enough venom to kill 100 men, and that really was me driving off into the sunset. The trickery involved getting a snake wrangler to bring one of his own snakes along and to place it in the dirt after I'd driven past. What would you have had me do? Tell it to lie still while I did a Clarkson? Risk killing it in the name of crass verisimilitude?

There are times when compassion comes first. You don't drive over the Oxyuranus microlepidotus; you don't subject cameramen to the fury of a nursing Ursus maritimus; and you do get that Felis catus Ed Miliband out of the bear pit which is the Commons.

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