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

Share
Related Topics

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Should parents be allowed to take pictures at nativity plays?  

Ghosts of Christmas past: What effect could posting pictures of nativity plays have on the next generation?

Ellen E Jones
The first Christmas card: in 1843 the inventor Sir Henry Cole commissioned the artist John Callcott Horsley to draw a card for him to send to family and friends  

Hold your temperance: New life for the first Christmas card

Simmy Richman
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick