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Saturday, 14 February 2009

Nature’s Great Events, BBC1


Did we like it?
To counter piracy, record companies have smothered record shops in Remastered & Deluxe versions of existing releases, to coerce the people who still shell out for CDs and listen to them as ‘background music’ to pay even more for the same product with a few ropey bonus tracks and extraneous live songs. Nature’s Great Events has a parallel philosophy in that you still get all the classic elements of a great TV programme – Sir David Attenborough, nature at its most beautiful and brutal – but also the nagging doubt that you’ve seen it all before, and that the slurred gloss of slow motion and new-fangled CGI imagery accentuates this deception rather than enhancing the entertainment.

What was good about it?
• Sir David Attenborough’s peerless authority. He could donate his sage tones to Jackass, and glorify its appeal as the apogee of human survivalist instinct. Here, he makes do with conveying the peaks and troughs of life as a polar bear, and the zeniths and nadirs of a narwhal colony acting as biological ice breakers through the disintegrating summer floes.
• And what Sir David does brilliantly is to make you care about each of the animals as if they were a friend. Towards the end of the programme, we encountered a starving polar bear that had made its way prematurely out onto the thin ice, and fell into the freezing sea. For a while, it appeared as if it wouldn’t have the strength to drag itself back onto the thicker ice. But when it did, Sir David merely noted how it was wriggling in the snow to dry its fur, after letting the drama of the sequence play out by itself.
• But Sir David doesn’t cosset the viewer in a comfort blanket to soothe the barbarity of nature. In another of the most illuminating scenes, he took an even-handed approach to fledging guillemots launching themselves from their nests into the sea 300 metres below. At first, he shared the joy of the parents as they guided their offspring safely into the sea, but then altered his tone to empathise with the Arctic fox as it bounded around below the cliffs preying on the unfortunate chicks that landed short of the sea, and how their flesh would help the growth of its cubs.
• The walrus scuffling the seabed with surprising dexterity to feed on 4,000 clams in 10 minutes, before resuming its more slothful position on a beach among many other walrus where they bicker like drunken blokes in the pub.

What was bad about it?
• We’ve seen many of the sequences before, and while alluring, it perhaps shows that natural history documentaries have reached a natural threshold. That underwater photography of whales is no longer the same bolt of originality it was 10 years ago, and there are only so many times you can actually show starving polar bears (especially without Sir David’s commentary).
• And nothing in this episode could match the occasion on a previous similar series when an exhausted polar bear made a few futile attempts to breach a wall of walrus blubber before settling down quietly to die.
• We also object to the adulterating influence of slow motion in such films. It’s fine when analysing, say, the fluttering of a bee’s wings, but moments here as male polar bears jousted or the Arctic fox plundered the dazed guillemot chicks, it actually jolted you away from the thawing tundra and into the warm indulgence of an editing suite where your eyes are mercilessly guided to look at something such as the juddering loose skin of the bear or the flying feathers of the doomed birds.
• At one point the procession became almost comical as the magnificent narwhals, the unicorn of the sea, swam down narrow channels in the breaking ice to reach the fertile freshwater feeding grounds. However, slowed down they had the artifice and grace of an over-stylised fashion show being repeated on E!.

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