Terence Blacker: Why we all deserve a bit of wildlife porn

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The Independent Online

The god of Sunday television at home is back, bringing beauty, awe and comfort to families everywhere. Sometimes he seems to be soaring high above creation looking down; sometimes he is so close to the creatures of the earth that he might be one of them. The migration of thousands of caribou and the mating dance of a bird of paradise are as one to him. As he contemplates the animal kingdom, he expresses wonder, tenderness, excitement, concern and - just look at those king penguins! - benign amusement. All over the country, parents will be telling their children that they can stay up beyond their bed-time just this once in order to experience the wonders of the earth in the company of David Attenborough.

But, as usual, there are non-believers and sceptics, carping on the sidelines. Planet Earth, the latest great epic to emerge from the BBC's natural history unit may have taken four years and a budget of many millions to produce, and is doubtless a triumph of technology, patience, and courage, but, according to Tony Juniper of Friends of the Earth, a dangerously partial picture is being shown.

Those watching a mother polar bear emerging with two cubs after spending five months beneath the ice should be reminded that the species is threatened by the melting ice-caps. Footage of the rare snow leopard should be accompanied by the information that poaching and logging by humans are destroying its habitat.

"Sometimes you can create the false impression that everything is absolutely fine," says Juniper. "What needs to be done is for conservation and environmental and ecological messages to be built into these programmes from beginning to end." A grumpy environmentalist from Article 13 went further, describing the series as "wildlife porn".

At first glance, it may seem an outrageous calumny to compare a great and serious-minded wildlife series to the output of sleazy porn-merchants, but it turns out that there are uncomfortable parallels between the two. When punters settle down to watch Planet Earth, they know what to expect. The complexities and ambiguities of life, the dull stuff in between the action, will be ignored by a director intent on keeping us on the edge of our seats.

Viewers want the good bits, the money shots: mating displays, territorial fights, great mass movements of mammals and birds, young animals making their first faltering steps behind their mother, wild dogs hunting an impala, sex and death and beauty. As one spectacular sequence follows another, there is little time for exposition or detail.

The idea that the script for any wildlife series should contain appropriately baleful warnings of the effects of pollution, global warming and predation of man is as absurd as expecting The Story of O to include homely advice on marital boredom and sexual dysfunction. Both types of film are dealing in illusion; they offer an escape from reality.

The vision presented by series like Planet Earth is of a world of breathtaking unspoilt beauty, teeming and churning with life. While the words intoned by David Attenborough may make occasional reference to the fragility of the planet or to the dangers of human population growth, the true story is being told by the astonishing pictures and it is an uplifting one of earth's richness and fecundity. That, in a sense, is the only way an entertaining, populist wildlife programme can be: footage of tree stumps in a tropical jungle, or a dustbowl, or a landscape empty of animals is hardly likely to please the punters on a Sunday evening.

Because the world is presented as an innocent place, the one mammal who remains missing from these programmes is man. With humans in shot, the Garden of Eden fantasy would be lost, the illusion destroyed. Instead, we get wildlife as showbiz, their lives and deaths, however gruesome, prettified and dramatised by the camera. To ensure the correct response, incidental music - as sentimental, schmaltzy and skittish as anything used in a Disney film - is there to ensure the right emotional response from the viewer.

Yet, bizarrely, the great wildlife series have also become a double celebration of late. The wonders of nature are there on screen, but so is the brilliance of man. Planet Earth has been promoted as much on the back of its extraordinary photographic techniques and the bravery and endurance of its camera crews as on the animals themselves. The last 10 minutes of each episode is devoted, in the oddly postmodern way which has recently become modish, to an account of how the film was made. It is as if, after a meal, the chef were to emerge from the kitchen into a restaurant to confide how difficult it had been to cook.

But wildlife porn or not, insights in to the natural world of the quality of those provided by this series are unmissable. Tony Juniper may be right to point out that we are being a given false reassurance about the environment, but perhaps we deserve a few moments' respite on a Sunday evening from the sense of general guilt that is now expected of us. For just an hour, the BBC offers what David Attenborough has called "the glories of the world" without asking us to feel personally culpable for what may happen to them in the future.

It may be as much of a fantasy as anything dreamt up by the porn barons of Los Angeles, but it is one that offers a rare celebration of life itself.

terblacker@aol.com

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