Did we like it?
The fingernail-gnawing most frustrating foible about reviewing a Sir David Attenborough series is that they are so damn near perfect any jagged criticism quickly melts into a cascading torrent of unqualified praise. And Life In Cold Blood, despite our natural reviewers’ cynicism, is no different.
What was good about it?
• It’s just utterly fantastic television. Sir David will gently beckon you into his beguiling world of basking lizards, grappling frogs and priapic tortoises by introducing traits that are familiar, for example that marine iguana lizards on the rocky shore of one of the Galapagos Islands need to do a spot of sunbathing each morning to warm up so they are able to forage for food in the cold seas.
• He’ll then take you by the hand and make a leap of faith into the esoteric but captivating minutiae of lizards and amphibians, for example furthering your understanding of how the iguanas warm up each morning by employing a thermal image camera to show them turning from a chilled blue into a baking orange.
• And once you’re au fait with that aspect of their lives, he’ll venture on even further and show you how some female lizards choose their mate by the simple measure of how high their stack of rocks is, as being able to reign over the most desirable sunbathing spot implies potency and strength. To prove his point Sir David mischievously built a big pile of rocks for one of the lower ranking males, and then marvel as the females flock to his impromptu castle of burning love.
• And it’s Sir David’s passion and enthusiasm that keeps you riveted from the start. The concluding chapter in this episode saw Sir David journey to Madagascar in search of a pygmy chameleon that eluded him when he was there in 1960 filming for Zoo Quest. Following the advice of his expert guide, they traipsed through the jungle at night when the chameleons would be more visible because of their pale skin and habit of perching on the end of branches to avoid predators.
• They first encountered a larger chameleon. “Ha! Ha! It fed,” exalted Sir David as it ate a nearby fly. “It can’t usually hunt in the dark; it took advantage of our torches and…” And when his guide picked out the mysterious pygmy chameleon, Sir David was once again in raptures. “How extraordinary,” he murmured, gasping at its puny 1” frame. “That is absolutely extraordinary!” And this is why Sir David is the patron saint of TV; he’s been around the world more times than the moon, seen sights and heard sounds God perhaps hasn’t realised he’d created and probably spent more time on British TV screens that Noel Edmonds and yet he still retains that contagious fervour for exploring life on earth and telling us about it.
• Sir David explained how, even though lizards have remained pretty much static for hundreds of millions of years, they are still capable of making strides in their evolution even today. It was only 20 years ago that one inventive lizard started to eat the fruit of the dead arum plants on a Mediterranean island, but now the whole population has followed suit. This not only provides the lizards with a nutritious new food source, it also enables the arum plant to disseminate about the island, again in turn, boosting the lizard population because of the extra nourishment available.
• Other amazing sights included the jousting tortoises; the python that while swallowing a deer pokes its air pipe out the side of its mouth to enable it to breathe; the armadillo lizards that curl into a ball by biting their tails to prevent any predator gaining easy access to their soft underbellies; the baby tortoises surviving the chill of winter in a burrow; crocodile foreplay; how stegosaurs conducted heat through their blood-vessel rich plates; leatherback turtles depositing their eggs on a Caribbean beach; and the nocturnal gecko lizard.
• But the most astonishing sight was the South American waxy monkey frog that, unusually for amphibians spends more of its time out of the water. It is able to do so, and not have its skin desiccate, because it “secretes a wax from glands on its neck”, which it then smears all over its body to act as a sunblock. It was made all the more charming by the fashion in which the frog lazily applied the wax like a yawning holidaymaker on their first day at the beach on the Costa Brava.
What was bad about it?
• This is probably his last series. Who will replace him? With all the murderous cuts the BBC is plunging into the Natural History department, this kind of show will probably be transferred to the entertainment division.
Here Graham Norton will host a show that sees ten endangered indigenous habitats plead not to be ploughed up and exploited in the pursuit of oil or some such other industrial profitable commodity by performing circus tricks for a panel consisting of Sir Richard Branson, Anne Leslie and Kelly Osbourne with the one with the lowest score each week to be pillaged for every last atom of its natural resources by the multinational making the largest donation to the NSPCC.
It would be more altruistic and sensible to jettison Graham Norton preferably over the Amazon Rainforest, although this would probably end up on BBC3 (or BBC Three) as the summer fill-in for Lily Allen.
At one point Sir David seemed to transform into an Eton-educated version of Jennifer Lopez, quoting lyrics from her tracks as if revising them for an Oxford-entrance exam: “The females do indeed go for the males with the hottest rocks.”; “I’m the new boy on the block.”