Thursday, 10 November 2011

Why the BBC's "Frozen Planet" should make you proud to be British

If you haven’t been watching the latest David Attenborough-voiced BBC nature series, Frozen Planet, you really should - the first three episodes are available on iPlayer and the fourth instalment is at 9pm on BBC One next Wednesday. (If you're simply too busy, there's an excellent audio slideshow here.)

Superlatising this sort of output is hardly an original or controversial activity – I mean, who’s going to disagree? But, really, this one’s an absolute dilly. The arial shot of the 400,000-strong penguin colony; a skua snatching a penguin chick from under the noses of its alarmed parents; killer whales harrying a lone minke to death with all the ruthlessness of an SAS assassination squad; two hungry wolves attacking a young bison only to be seen off by the rest of the thundering herd; furious terns dive-bombing a hungry polar bear, piercing its bonce with their beaks; the underground ice caves resembling Superman’s Fortress of Solitude; the way they’ve captured the heart-piercing beauty of frozen wastes - every single frame is as beautiful as any painting; the polar bear mother teaching her goofy kids basic survival skills; male bull fur seals ripping chunks off each other as they fight for a harem of fleshly lovelies; the baby bull seal managing to find its way back to its mother after being separated during the fight – there isn;t a single sequence that isn't totally rivetting. This is undoubtedly the greatest natural history series I’ve ever seen.

The ten minute sequences at the end of each episode (the programmes are 50 minutes long to accommodate advertising slots in foreign markets) demonstrate the privations suffered by the camera crews in order to capture these sequences. I’m not sure I’d have been quite so insouciant or have felt quite so “privileged” to be sitting in a flimsy dinghy while killer whales saw if they could knock me off my perch, as we’d just seen them do to a seal clinging to an ice floe. And there are many things I’d rather do than allow a full-sized polar bear get within 15 yards of me while I tried to steer the boat away from her. Or try to make it back to hut while 100mph Antarctic winds tried to tear my face off while covering the trail.

BBC Natural History Unit programmes are one of the things that still make me proud to be (half) British. There are very watchable wildlife programmes on Discovery and ITV, of course – but series like Frozen Planet are in an entirely different league.

I’m sure I’m not the only viewer who’s noticed several distinct changes in natural history programming in recent years. First, references to Climate Change appear to be rarer. They haven’t disappeared altogether, of course, but one gets a sense that writers have realised that at least half as us no longer share their assumptions that we’re all headed for disaster and that it’s all our fault. I imagine that it’s particularly marked in this series because the two sets of evidence from the Arctic and the Antarctic appear to be pulling in different directions – or perhaps the next episode will see Attenborough banging on about how awful and destructive we are and how we’d better enjoy these scenes while we can because the ice caps will have disappeared by 2015 and polar bears will be running wild in Chiswick High Road.

Second, there’s far less  shagging. I was watching another documentary on a commercial channel just the other day which had some great sequences of a Candian bear protecting her cubs (who, inevitably, looked like the world’s cutest soft toys) from a big brute of a male bear. Then we saw the mummy bear pairing off with some other brute – and the camera lingered for an uncomfortably long time as they coupled. I’ve always found this deeply distasteful. Surely only zoologists and a tiny handful of perverts could possibly want to watch thisn sort of thing: I have absolutely no desire to watch animals copulating, just as I'm crazy about watching them defecate. It’s impossible not to view animals anthropomorphically,  especially when they resemble humans as closely as bears do, and one can't help feeling that they deserve some modicum of privacy when they're at it.

Fortunately, BBC nature programmes seem to have taken the hint, and Frozen Planet is practically a shag-free zone.

The same goes for violence. In the Nineties it seemed as if the makers of wildlife programmes had decided that sex and violence was what kept us riveted, so there would be rumpy-pump and grizzly violence every few minutes. The violence, in particular, started to wear me down: it’s enough to know that some cuddly animal is about to be killed without having to see its death agonies. What purpose does upsetting the viewer serve? The handling of violence has become more decorous, more considerate of our sensibilties. Last night, after we’d been shown the poor penguin chick I mentioned at the top being carried off by a skua, Attenborough was quick to point out that its parents could now recoup le their efforts to protect their surviving chick. Nice touch that, and there was nothng ion the least Disneyfied about it.

I can’t recommend this stunning masterpiece strongly enough.


  1. During a particularly cold January in 1941 Churchill was informed that a senior civil servant had been arrested for exposing himself in Green Park.

    "Exposing himself in this weather?" growled the Great One. "By Gad, sir, it makes you proud to be British!"

  2. Ah, now I understand why there've been so few references to AGW - the last episode will be a 50 minute advertisement for the theory, with scads of propaganda delivered straight to camera by Attenborough. The polar caps are melting (well, the North is - the South is actually getting bigger), polar bears are dying, the globe is warming (actually, no it's been cooling for the past decade - but don't let minor details get in the way), polar bears are dying and IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT. Right? Disgraceful lack of balance, of course - but when was the BBC ever interested in presenting both sides of an argument?

    The most satisfying thing about this naked attempt to stuff a theory a majority of us know to be false down our throats is that many of the foreign markets into which the series is being sold have only bought six episodes - having decided not show the Global Warming one. I will follow their example and give the seventh episode of this otherwise brilliant series a wide birth. I don't like being preached at by monomaniacal obsessives. Unless I'm doing the preaching.

  3. HARUMPHREY OF THE ANTARCTIC17 November 2011 at 15:48

    It will be interesting to see how fast the media's ardour for climate change cools when their stance starts affecting income...been a free ride so far