Primates review: A fascinating, fresh-air documentary to watch in lockdown

From bearded capuchins to yellow baboons, the furry creatures in BBC1’s new nature series are a reminder we have a lot in common with our closest animal relatives

Ellie Harrison
Sunday 26 April 2020 21:14
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Primates trailer

There is a monkey in the BBC’s new nature epic that bears a startling resemblance to Donald Trump. The uakari has a disgruntled, crimson face and bleach blond hair – though its coat is far thicker than the wispy comb-over still desperately clinging to the president's scalp. It’s one of the many creatures we meet in Primates (BBC1), which serves as a reminder of just how similar humans are to our closest furry relatives.

Made by the BBC Studios Natural History Unit, Primates was shot over two years in locations around the world, from the canyons of north-east Brazil to the volcanic slopes of Virunga in central Africa. Visually, it’s a treat. The primates are a joy to watch, too. Bearded capuchins. Spider monkeys. Silverback mountain gorillas. Yellow baboons. Lion-tailed macaques. They’re all there – each with a uniquely coloured derrière, hairstyle and mode of survival. The first episode is all about the latter.

Almost every sequence shows them acting like people. One group of monkeys can be seen doing DIY, their faces a picture of grim determination as they make hunting tools out of wood. Later, we watch lion-tailed macaques slapping away pesky squirrels who try to pinch their supply of ripe fruit. As one of the crew members observes, it’s not a thwack but a “gentle little tap”. It’s very comic, very human.

Elsewhere, baby gorillas use their patriarch, who weighs around 28 stone and is feared by most animals, as a trampoline. In lockdown, I’m sure many parents can empathise.

Over in Madagascar, we meet lemurs. Dozens of King Juliens sprawled out across branches, enjoying their daily siesta. Like us, they love lazing around, but they can also be extremely productive: they've created a jungle pharmacy, having figured out that rubbing ant-produced acid on their fur acts as an insect repellent against tics.

Their Indonesian cousins are wiley, too, stealing tourists’ sunglasses and exchanging them for morsels of food. They are as stealthy as they charming.

As is to be expected with a documentary about chimps, many minutes are dedicated to footage of them being cheeky. For all the cuteness on display, the programme also has a high cringe quotient. “When it really counts,” says narrator Chris Packham, “the monkeys back each other up.” Mischievous music patters over scenes of bush babies getting up to no good, instructing us how to feel. "At last, jack pot!" cries Packham, when the pint-sized creatures find their dinner.

That said, it’s an enlightening and amusing documentary to watch in quarantine – giving us the blast of fresh air we all need and reminding us that life goes on.

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