Thursday, April 15, 2021

‘We’ve had enough for the moment about disasters’

‘We’ve had enough for the moment about disasters’

Take away the state-of-the-art drones and the gyro-stabilised 4K cameras from the BBC’s latest blue-chip natural history series, A Perfect Planet. Strip out the luscious score and the stunning close-ups of nature at its most intimate.

What you are left with are the same clipped tones and breathy, awe-struck commentary that entertained and educated the viewers of grainy black-and-white nature programs in the 1950s.

It is hard to find anything in modern television that has endured since the middle of the last century. Yet there is the British naturalist Sir David Attenborough and his reassuring, occasionally chiding, voice-of-God narration, virtually undimmed by age, still lending gravitas and luster to sequences of lesser flamingos in Tanzania, land iguanas on the Galápagos Islands and flamboyant cuttlefish off the coasts of Indonesia.

Repeatedly voted both the most trusted and popular person in his home country, Attenborough may be the most travelled human in history. (For his landmark 1979 series Life on Earth alone, he traveled 1.5 million miles.) “If the world is, indeed, to be saved,” environmental journalist and activist Simon Barnes wrote, “then Attenborough will have had more to do with its salvation than anyone else who ever lived.”

TV executives have been planning for his retirement for more than 30 years, but at 94, Attenborough is still at the top of his food chain and being asked to front some of the most lavish and expensive productions to hit our screens.

Flamingos with chicks on Lake Natron. Photograph: Darren Williams/Silverback Films/BBC
Musk ox Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada. Photograph: Alain Lusignan/ Silverback Films/BBC
Musk ox Ellesmere Island, Nunavut, Canada. Photograph: Alain Lusignan/ Silverback Films/BBC

His latest, which debuts on BBC One on Sunday, January 3rd, was filmed in 31 countries over four years (and six volcanic eruptions). Across five episodes, it will examine the forces of nature that shape all life: volcanoes, sunlight, weather, oceans and the newest: humans.

On a video call from his own habitat – the book-lined study of his home in the leafy London suburb of Richmond – Attenborough talked about his 67 years on screen, the silver lining of the pandemic and why Joe Biden had him jumping out of his chair. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

Was there a scene in your new series that had the most poignant echo for you of something you saw in the field decades ago – something that has been transformed since by climate change?
That’s not the focus of this particular series – climate change is what it’s not about. In a way, it’s an antidote to climate change gloom. It is showing the extraordinary resilience of the natural world and the marvellous way in which everything interdigitates, just forms a perfect mesh. In a way, that’s a biological obviousness in that things evolve to fit one another. If you’ve got a 50-million-year circumstance, it’s not surprising it ends up interlocking in many kinds of ways. It’s about how, in fact, in this age, when we’re worrying so much – and correctly – about the problems of the natural world, there are marvellous marvels to be seen and we’re showing some of them. We’ve had enough for the moment about disasters.

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