Oh good, another David Attenborough series. The critic’s nemesis. If you are reading this in expectation of the longed-for hot Dave takedown, you will be disappointed. It is hard to imagine the DA + BBC formula, which has worked so well for so long, delivering a dud, but it is not impossible. Sadly this new five-parter, Dynasties (BBC1), is not it.
It focuses on families, which is another way of saying that Attenborough & co are no longer even pretending not to be launching a direct assault on the heartstrings. The animal footage in these programmes has always been a distraction, but it’s a sumptuously shot high definition red herring. (Has Attenborough ever done something on red herring? Maybe one for the next series.) Human emotions are the reason we come back, and on the first episode alone it is as enjoyable as anything he has done.
It looks at a troop of chimpanzees living in west Senegal. Hot and dry, it is the limit of their habitable range. Despite having lived alongside humans for millennia, chimpanzees here are now critically endangered, their habitat destroyed by gold miners. Aside from the two years of filming, we learn at the end the troop has been studied for 20 years by Dr Jill Pruetz, who has a tattoo of a chimp on her arm, in case anyone doubted the sincerity of her PhD. Until then, we wonder ever so slightly if the head chimp has been named David purely for its resonance with our narrator.
“This territory is ruled by one strong and determined leader,” Attenborough intones. “An alpha male known as David. His rule gets him the best of everything but he can trust no one. He’s surrounded by rivals prepared to kill him for his crown. This is a story of power, politics and the fight for survival.” Attenborough, who in addition to this series has just signed up for an eight-part Netflix documentary next year, shows no sign of giving up the fight.
Chimpanzees are so human to begin with they might as well be actors. In fact, for this kind of theatre they are in some ways better than humans, expressing their inner thoughts directly through action. When the men want to fight, they pick up a rock, howl and hold their arms put wide. They cross their arms and pout to apologise. When the women are up for a mate, their relevant organs swell grotesquely. They don’t dissemble, these chimps. Monkey see, monkey do.
From the look of things they have also had lessons in Greek tragedy, Hollywood epics and the Old Testament. David clings precariously to his position as head of the troop. The passage in which he is left for dead by the troop after being attacked, only to cling to life and make his way back, is straight out of The Revenant, with simian howls instead of Leonardo DiCaprio’s plaintive cries to the Oscar committee.
The actors are nothing without the rest of the production. The camerawork, the editing, the sound, the storyline: all immaculate. To get these monkeys you must pay more than peanuts. In the how-we-filmed-it coda, Jill says the chimps are sometimes like a “soap opera”. They were much more than that. Attenborough will rule his troop as long as he is alive, and we ought to savour every minute.
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