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Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Lost Land of the Volcano, BBC1

A thriving nirvana to be explored with veneration and awe by a team of intuitive experts, as they probe the flora and fauna of the environs of New Guinea surrounding the dormant volcano Mount Bosavi.

That was the plan. Instead we got a bunch of excitable botanists who careered around the jungle blabbering inanely at anything and everything, making the venture as grating as being guided round the Hanging Gardens of Babylon by Timmy Mallett.

Of course, it’s not the experts’ fault. It’s this bogus credo of nature documentaries laid down in the risible Oceans and Volcano’s prequel Lost Land of the Jaguar that decrees that dumb animals and plants lack the charisma to lure the viewers in and keep them transfixed so instead the spotlight must shift to the team.

Rather than exploring the dense jungle in the name of altruism, the team are painted as being driven by their own goals. Nominal expedition leader George McGavin states: “I want to be able to find 30 new species right here!” Cameraman Gordon Buchanan pipes up: “I would absolutely have loved to have been at the cave to see the cuscus (a small possum).” It seems that rather than simply savouring the wondrous wildlife for its beauty and nature, the team feel compelled to describe what it means to them. We don’t care.

Such extraneous details are more suited to a Making Of… documentary, and their inclusion devours time that could be spent learning about the new creatures the team discover, because when they focus solely on enlightening the viewer about what they’ve found it becomes brilliant television.

Steve Backshall stumbles across a ruined crocodile nest and explains how the eggs have been predated by a monitor lizard, while Gordon describes the habits of the pygmy parrot.

Elsewhere George exhumes a ‘talking’ beetle from deep in a rotten log and lets us listen to it chirruping in the muggy air. Later a phalanx of dead ants is observed covering the leaves of a plant. They’ve all been infected by an insidious fungus that eats away at their insides leaving them as hollowed out carcasses before forming into new spores to infect even more ants.

It’s revelations of nature such as these that makes it so frustrating that we have to endure the banal sight of contrived vignettes that would shame MTV as George opens up a pouch to discover a couple of mating beetles inside. Ho bloody ho. And such stage-managed scenes raise doubts about the veracity of the inevitable moments of imperilment that became a trite lasting memoir of Jaguar.

Walking in the jungle at night Gordon stumbles on a snake. He thinks it’s the potentially lethal small-eyed snake. Snake expert Steve comes out to assist him, and takes a suspicious lack of care in clumsily snaring the serpent, letting it coil about his legs, before identifying it as a harmless ground snake. It makes you wonder if the snake was correctly identified even before Gordon first ‘spotted’ it and the whole charade was set up to instil a sense of danger.

Steve also features in his own little narrative that sees him voyage downstream – getting tediously trapped in a perilous whirlpool along the way – to investigate a vast cave network that begins halfway up a cliff and delves deep into the mountain “under a 100 million tonnes of rock”. Inevitably, the process of gaining entry is strung out in a tortuous mess of ropes and faux terror before Steve and the team dully splash their way through some dark caverns battling life-threatening currents and their own exhaustion. The only thing of interest in the whole episode was, unsurprisingly, the blind, pallid crab they found and quickly discarded. Steve said he was shocked to find life so deep into the caves, which provokes the question: why are you bothering to seek out barren holes in the ground when you could be tracking down new bats?

The answer is Sir David Attenborough. Sir David has accidentally perfected natural history programme presentation, and perhaps the thought of aping his effortless style would invite mockery and derision. If so, the team should be applauded for trying to fashion a new way of presenting such programmes, but the problem is that it is done so hamfistedly as to drain much of the joy away.

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