The composer behind David Attenborough’s new series on how it made him rethink the climate crisis

‘A Perfect Planet’, which was filmed in 31 countries, explores how the great forces of nature enable life on earth, and how humanity’s impact has destabilized the balance

Louise Boyle
Senior Climate Correspondent in New York
Tuesday 09 February 2021 15:00
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David Attenborough's new series A Perfect Planet looks at the impact of humanity on the climate

David Attenborough’s new series, A Perfect Planet, has all the elements we’ve been spoilt with in the past: panning shots of savannas and dense rainforest, close-ups of charismatic species and a soaring soundtrack, varnished with the legendary naturalist’s iconic voice.

But what’s most surprising about this series is the lengths that it took to make - challenges caused by Covid rather than tricky long-haul flight schedules or demanding jungle treks.

At 94, Sir David has spent the pandemic isolating at his home in London, and jerry-rigged his own home studio to record his voiceover.

“He put duvets all over the walls to help dampen the sound and then our sound recorder went down there, took a very long cable and put it through his window,” producer Ed Charles explained in a recent interview.

For composer Ilan Eshkeri, who created the score for the BBC series, it was also a “WFH” project – in the shed he has converted to a recording studio at his London home.

It was from this outpost he spoke to The Independent , via Zoom. Mr Eshkeri said creating the score had been “enormously challenging” but that the far-flung bunch of musicians involved had risen to the moment.

“At first we weren't allowed to form an orchestra in the UK, so recording became incredibly difficult," he said.

“We have London Symphony Orchestra musicians who would normally record at Abbey Road studios. Instead, the brass and woodwind [musicians] were recording in their living rooms with microphones that had been sent to them and with help controlling their computers over Zoom.

“Since the pandemic hadn't hit so hard in Iceland, we were able to put a [small] string orchestra together. I was recording guitars and synths, and I had my friend Tim [Wheeler, from the band Ash] also on guitars. His tour had been canceled so he was able to play the whole way through which was incredibly lucky.

"It was a mishmash of people from all over the world but the musicians are so extraordinary that we got away with it. What was very time-consuming was taking all the different parts and putting them back together. That unenviable job fell to my producer Steve McLaughlin but he’s got a little bit of magic in his fingers and really brought it to life. But to say it was labour-intensive is an understatement.”

He added: "In a way, the process made sense to what we were trying to say – that the world is so connected, and what we do here matters for people in other places."

The composer said that he was drawn to working on the series not only because of its exploration of natural forces – volcanoes, the sun, weather and oceans – but also as it would look at how human-driven climate change had affected life on earth. 

"The idea that the series would celebrate the planet, and that David Attenborough was going to do a piece on humans which he hadn't done was really inspiring," he said.

It is Mr Eshkeri's fourth collaboration with Sir David, following a series about the Great Barrier Reef, a documentary filmed by the naturalist at the Natural History Museum, and a virtual-reality experience called Hold The World.

Pre-Covid, Sir David has popped in to cheer on the musicians who create the soundtracks for his series. 

"He spent the whole morning with us during a previous recording session at Abbey Road," Mr Eshkeri said. "He loves music and is a very keen pianist. He said a few words to the orchestra, it was exciting for everyone.

"After he left, I went out to the podium to speak to the orchestra. It was November and freezing cold but a butterfly flew down and landed on the podium, then the scroll of a violin and some manuscript paper. There was a stunned silence. I thought it must be that David approves of the music to lend us the gift of the butterfly."

Composer Ilan Eshkeri, who created the soundtrack for A Perfect Planet

Mr Eshkeri has an eclectic body of work which includes collaborations with Annie Lennox, David Gilmour, Sinead O'Connor and KT Tunstall. He has been nominated for an Ivor Novello award for the movie, The Young Victoria, and worked with British astronaut Tim Peake and the European Space Agency on a film documenting his mission to the International Space Station. The collaboration culminated in a show, Space Station Earth, which has been performed at the Louvre and the Royal Albert Hall. 

Mr Eshkeri said that A Perfect Planet was symbiotic with the space agency collaboration. He recalled a conversation with one astronaut about the "overview effect" which many experience during space travel, when they are able to see earth's fragility in an ocean of darkness.

“There's something about leaving the planet and seeing it [from afar] that profoundly affects them and they come back slightly changed,” he said.

"A Perfect Planet tied in with that. I always felt like I understood quite a lot about climate and sustainability, and I certainly cared about it. But after working on this I realised that I didn't know anywhere near as much as I should. It's had a really profound effect on me."

A Perfect Planet, which was filmed in 31 countries, explores how the great forces of nature enable life on earth.

But the final episode turns to the newest force of nature – humanity – and how it has upended the planet's balance and left us facing a climate crisis.

"Today we are experiencing environmental change as never before and the need to take action has never been more urgent," Sir David said following the series’ release. "This year the world will gather in Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. It's a crucial moment in our history. This could be a year for positive change. For ourselves, for our planet and for the wonderful creatures with which we share it. A year the world could remember proudly and say we made a difference."

Mr Eshkeri said that he was inspired by Sir David's words and in particular by his faith in the next generation.

"David Attenborough has talked about the importance of educating children so that they understand the world they're going to inherit," he said.

"It's a message that's very important to me and one that I believe we have a responsibility to engage with - in a way that not only educates but inspires the next generation. This influenced my approach to the music, and set me on an unconventional path."

It influenced the theme of the series, titled A Perfect Planet, which he said that he wrote with children's voices in mind. "It's a very simple theme but it's positive and was about inspiring hope."

In the brief window out of UK lockdown this past autumn,  the production team was able to bring together school choirs from London and Milton Keynes to sing the song.

Mr Eshkeri is offering the sheet music to schools who want to sing the song as a way to encourage learning about climate change and sustainability. He can be contacted at his website.

The composer said that he knew he was on the right track with the piece as his daughter has been singing it.

"She is my harshest critic, so that was a big compliment," he said.

A Perfect Planet is available for streaming on BBC iPlayer. The series is also available to stream on the Discovery+ app.

The soundtrack from A Perfect Planet can be streamed or purchased here

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