HERE’S a cheering statistic: more young adults watched Planet Earth II than the X Factor. That’s one in the eye for tawdry talent shows, manufactured drama and Simon Cowell.
Well, I say that but I try not to watch the X Factor, so that opinion is based on prejudice and the faintest of acquaintances. Perhaps the X Factor is fine if you like that sort of thing. Our daughter does but that’s one of those programmes she watches on her own television upstairs.
Being in the mentioned age bracket, she has also watched Planet Earth II, which pulled in more than 12 million viewers a week – and two million in the 16 to 34 age group.
We caught up with the final episode last night, and what an astonishing treat that was. The cities programme added another dimension to a wildlife film, showing how animals can thrive in their relationship with man (the bone-crunching spotted hyenas and impudent leaping langurs) or flounder and die (those poor disorientated turtle hatchlings, drawn to the dangerous lights on land, rather than moonlight on water).
The filming throughout this series was astonishing, thanks to advances in camera technology and the use of drones – as well as the skill, persistence and bravery of the filmmakers. The cities programme filmed animals up close and personal against a city backdrop. What lovely shots those were of falcons swooping and surging against the man-made towering columns of New York. The leopards prowling the streets of Mumbai, captured in ghostly night-vision just feet from people walking about the city, had me peeping through my fingers. They muscled down low to the ground as they went in search of piglets, snatching the poor things by the scruff of the neck and slinking off with a pork takeaway.
Some sights in this series were distressing, although there seemed to be a reluctance to ‘show the kill’ in earlier episodes: either that or the hungry hunters never found their tea.
Wildlife documentaries, even one as immaculate as Planet Earth II, naturally call on narrative contrivance. Events filmed over days, weeks or months are patched into one swift story; but is this cheating or just a necessary ordering of events? It’s hard to know how else a wildlife film could be made.
Those turtle hatchlings in Barbados, heading the wrong way in their hopeless thousands, upset some viewers, including the one who shares the viewing sofa with me. “Why isn’t someone helping?” she asked. Sir David Attenborough has always had a rule that you should not interfere in nature.
The plight of the hawksbill turtles caused a stir which was reported from different angles. The Daily Mail put its battered, tattered heart on its sleeve and went for the “Why is no one helping the baby turtles?” line. The Daily Telegraph took another tack and reported that the filmmakers defied convention, and Attenborough’s usual wishes, by stepping in to rescue the stranded baby turtles.
Is it a filmmaker’s job to intervene or merely to record what happens and pass on the evidence to a higher authority (the viewer)? No, it’s not usually their role but you can appreciate why they helped.
Planet Earth II ended with the 90-year-old Attenborough making an impassioned plea on screen for cities to be developed in ways that encouraged and protected wildlife. He spoke directly to camera and urged us not to lose our connection with nature
“Only a small number of animals have managed to find ways of living alongside us,” he said from the top of the Shard skyscraper in London.
“And every 10 years an area the size of Britain disappears under a jungle of concrete. But it doesn’t have to be like this. Could it not be possible to build cities more in harmony with nature?”
Minutes earlier, remarkable footage shot in Singapore had shown a city that had done just that. I’d always thought Singapore was a scary, authoritarian place; and maybe it is, but the work done to encourage nature there looks astounding.
What a series, and what a validation for the BBC – so often under siege from politicians of all colours; under siege from resentful rivals; under siege from the ever-expanding Murdoch empire that is now bidding to control satellite broadcaster Sky and become the UK’s most powerful media group.
I know it’s a new world, a Netflix-flicked, Sky-scattered world (and I’m a bit of a Netflix fan). But Planet Earth II reminds us that on occasions the Beeb still rules supreme. And the series is being watched round the world too. Six incredible episodes and one good reason to be grateful for the BBC.
As for Attenborough – never mind knighthood, how about secular sainthood?