Image by Bryan Ledgard via Flickr
n the beginning there was the word, and the word was with Attenborough, and the word was Attenborough. As an evolutionary scientist, Sir David Attenborough may laugh at the biblical allusion, but he has certainly had an instrumental role in creating our modern perception of the world. For not only did Life on Earth, his landmark 13-part 1979 natural history series, change our relationship with television, it also transformed our understanding of nature and the planet at large.
Tim Scoones, who is executive producer of populist wildlife showSpringwatch, is in no doubt of the legacy of Life on Earth and its countless imitators. “It has been significant in reconnecting an increasingly disconnected human population with the environment of the planet that we not only come from but also rely on,” he says.
There had been other grand-scale documentary series before, such as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation and Jacob Bronowski‘s The Ascent of Man, both of which Attenborough commissioned when he was the controller of BBC2 from 1965-69. But his own spectacular treatise on evolution enjoyed a different level of universal appeal.
With its extraordinary wildlife images and its compelling story of life from algae to humanity, Life on Earth spoke to all ages and cultures, gaining an estimated global audience of 500 million. The moment in which Attenborough encountered a female mountain gorilla in Rwanda remains one of the most celebrated scenes in the history of television. “There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know,” he ad-libbed, and we found ourselves confronting the reality of our close ancestry, not in uplands of Rwanda, but on the sofas of our homes.
The series was the benchmark against which all other large-scale documentary television would thereafter be judged, and it marked the point at which ecological and environmental awareness moved out of obscure meeting rooms and into the world’s sitting rooms. This was a critical development, because without taking up any kind of political stance, Attenborough re-engaged overwhelmingly urban populations with the natural environments in which most of the world’s non-human inhabitants live.
Since then natural history has evolved through a process of natural selection and adaptation into a multiplicity of species in a variety of habitats. There is, for example, the Nat Geo Wild channel. Here is an environment that would probably not have existed had it not been for that burst of life from Life on Earth. Now, in consequence, it sustains celebrity fauna like Great Migrations with Stephen Fry, as well as more unfamiliar designations such as Shark Men, Tiger Man and, of course, My Dog Ate What?
There has also been diverse proliferation on that giant continental shelf, the BBC, where The Truth About Lions and Wild Night In feature among the scores of nature programmes that have been screened in recent years. Springwatch has mutated into Autumnwatch, Autumnwatch Unsprung and even Snow Watch, all of which draw audiences of around 2 to 3 million people.
However, the big beasts remain the epic series such as Human Planet, which gained figures of 5.3 million, and a 20% audience share, and specials like Polar Bears: Spy on the Ice, which 5.5 million watched. These programmes seem to plug into an elemental curiosity that is shared by all age groups and classes.
Attenborough himself was responsible for many of these programmes, including The Living Planet, The Trials of Life and The Life of Mammals. He also provided the narration (for British audiences) on The Blue Planet and, arguably the culmination of the genre, 2007’s Planet Earth.
The first series to be filmed in high definition, Planet Earth is the most expensive nature documentary the BBC has ever made. Not that the BBC was the only funder. Such is the cost of these kinds of undertakings, in which a cameraman may spend hundreds of hours waiting to capture an endangered species in its habitat, that they are pre-sold to partners such as America’s Discovery channel.
Spreading the investment in this manner has enabled the BBC to maintain its position at the leading edge of technology, delivering breathtaking images of cinematic breadth and forensic precision. The question now is: where can the natural sciences go from here on television? Over the past 32 years, every conceivable aspect and area of the planet has been documented in increasingly vivid detail. It’s likely that the quality of filming will continue to improve, but there is a limit to what there is to film. The new frontiers look set to be technological rather than geographical.
Tim Scoones believes producers will continue to attempt to top previous feats and cites the forthcoming Frozen Planet as an example of that ambition. “The Planet Earth team has gone to the ends of the earth,” he says. “This could be a document of a world that may not exist for much longer.”
Perhaps not surprisingly, Scoones suggests the future could be based on the model of more locally focused programmes such as Springwatch, which he says Attenborough himself picked out as representing the first major development in natural history broadcasting since Life on Earth. “It’s a deeper dive into knowledge broadcasting than those big nature polemics,” says Scoones.
This may be true, but it’s hard to imagine that such a steady, unfolding view of nature will ever capture the global imagination in the way that the monumental series, with all their exotic magnificence, have achieved. As Scoones agrees, a vital component of their success has been the sense of awe they inspire, which is a vanishingly rare commodity in the secular, postmodern world.
“One of the things we get back from audience research, particularly with the big pieces we do in natural history, is that viewers feel small and unimportant,” says Kim Shilling-law, the BBC commissioner for Science and Natural History. “In lots of ways you’d think that would be a negative response. You wouldn’t put it top of your list of how you’d want to feel today. But clearly it is an emotionally rewarding experience. Something about being placed in a bigger context is very powerful for the audience.”
Someone who instinctively understands this desire for a transcendent experience is Brian Cox, the youthful-looking professor of particle physics who has almost single-handedly revolutionised science on television. If Attenborough proves irreplaceable in nature, then Cox is busy taking up his mantle in science.
Traditionally, as Shillinglaw notes, the science audience has been characterised by its intellectual curiosity and the natural history audience by its expectation of emotional engagement. What was evident in Cox’s recent series Wonders of the Solar System and Wonders of the Universe was the clear intention to combine the two, simultaneously appealing to the heart and the mind.
Cox identifies Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, first broadcast in 1980, as an early inspiration and influence on his approach to science and ultimately broadcasting. “For me, one of the most powerful elements of the programme was the attempt to convey the underlying emotional attraction in the whole endeavour. You’ve got to remember that science is an emotional pursuit.”
Cutting his teeth in the Horizon strand, which can be a little dry and laboratorial, Cox wanted to find an “audience beyond the 1.5 million middle-aged men. We always had in mind that we would prefer a morePlanet Earth type audience.”
In the event, Wonders of the Universe drew an average audience of 6 million people in Britain, which is an impressive figure for a series which began by explaining the second law of thermodynamics. Much of its critical and commercial success can be attributed to Cox’s uncommon gift of being able to raise his voice without lowering his tone.
“I do think audiences are there to be challenged significantly more than we often assume,” he says. “I think you can lose audiences intellectually, and I don’t think they’ll turn off. That’s my theory. The evidence is that the viewing figures hold up.”
If Cox’s seemingly bottomless enthusiasm helped pull in many viewers, the two series also benefited from the vast, multi-locational scope more usually associated with natural history. One moment the presenter was in Mexico, then the next on the abandoned coastline of Namibia, racking up more air miles than George Clooney in Up in the Air.
Even so, he’s decided to ditch the globetrotting style for his next series. Shillinglaw approves of the change of tack. “What we have to be constantly aware of in television is to be wary of pastiche,” she says. “What Brian is saying there is that we shouldn’t become lazy.”
But Cox also seems to be saying that he feels the peripatetic frenzy served as a distraction. “I think in some sense, in hindsight, we overused the huge panoramic vistas. I think what’s interesting is if you look at what people remember from the two Wonder series, they tend to be the smaller moments. For example, in Solar System, when I have a little bucket and I calculate the energy output of the sun. It happens to be in Death Valley but it’s the intimacy of that scene that people remember.”
At the moment Cox and his partner Andrew Cohen are thinking about how to pare back on visually spectacular set pieces while still satisfying the widescreen and Blu-ray audience. “There’s almost a layer of clichés that have built up,” he says. “Things like Planet Earth started it, because you’ve got big TVs and so you can have beautiful helicopter shots. This kind of BBC trademark high-quality look has become part of the funding structure. Is there any of that glossy and almost bombastic television that we can strip away while keeping the quality?”
While grappling with this question, Cox and Cohen have been studying a series that’s more than three decades old: Life on Earth.
“Obviously one of the things that is brilliant about the programmes is Attenborough,” says Cox, “but they’re also quite intimate, quite long pieces where the environment becomes the stage for the story.”
It’s fitting that Cox, the most charismatic science presenter in a generation, has returned to Attenborough in his search for ideas. In showing us the world, Attenborough connected us with something profound and lasting and fundamentally bigger than ourselves. No one else has forged such a trusted relationship with the viewer. As Scoones puts it: “I think Life on Earth was when people recognised, if you like, the truth of the word.”
And the word, ultimately, is the image. That’s why television will remain the most effective means of bringing the message of nature’s rich and precious complexity home.
Professor Brian Cox, Wonders of the Universe
“Television is a limited format – you’re only working with a few hours – but what you can hope to do is to open people up to some big ideas. Things like Life on Earth revealed a world of natural history that just hadn’t been seen before. Planet Earth did it again.
And what Wonders of the Solar System and Universe did, from the feedback I’ve received, is inform a lot of people who didn’t know that there were 350m galaxies in the observable universe. You can convey the backdrop of current scientific knowledge. You can’t give a lecture. You can map out the terrain.
The natural event I was most proud of bringing to people’s TV screens was the solar eclipse at Varanasi. It was a dramatic thing to be involved in. It was very unlikely we were going to get it – the weather forecast was atrocious across the whole area of the eclipse. It was sheer luck that we chose the right place. And the backdrop and colour of Varanasi were brilliant.
What’s the event I’d most like to see on television? I think that would have to be a manned mission to Mars.”
Professor Brian Cox’s latest book is Wonders of the Universe (Collins, £20)
Beverly Joubert, Nat Geo Wild
“The issues we have in conservation today stem from a lack of understanding, and association with, nature, so television is an important mouthpiece and ambassador. We hear more and more comments from kids quoting stuff from our programmes back to us, and the number of facts they have absorbed is pretty stunning. We must, however, be careful about trivialising wildlife and suggesting that it only has value as entertainment for us humans. A lot of TV is like that, and you can reach a point at which it ceases to be productive and tips over into voyeurism. But television has other benefits too: because it is in your home, you tend to trust it for facts and debate, whereas theatre and film are considered entertainment.”
Beverly Joubert is the joint explorer-in-residence at Nat Geo Wild and the National Geographic Channel
Kate Humble, Springwatch
“The wildlife documentaries that have enormous popularity and are close to people’s hearts – the sort of thing that David Attenborough works on – have allowed viewers to become armchair travellers. Television allows people access to every part of the world and helps them to give value to the planet, to understand that this is something really worth protecting.
Nature documentaries open people’s eyes to the wonders of the natural world, be it something on their doorstep, the way Springwatch has done, or the exotic, like the behaviour of birds of paradise in Papua New Guinea. Some people have referred to documentaries like Blue Planet and Planet Earth as ‘wildlife porn’ – and I’d say hooray to that if it inspires viewers to get out into the natural world. The greater the passion we can inspire for the natural world, the more effective conservation will be.
I am proud of Springwatch: often the stars of the shows are animals and birds that people see in any urban garden or park. What we do through cutting-edge technology, using tiny little cameras, is film every moment through their breeding seasons. It’s certainly given me a different perspective on our most common birds, ones that we often disregard. It may seem small and domestic compared to seeing an astonishing lion kill, but our domestic environment is something to be celebrated.”
Kate Humble appears on Springwatch on BBC Two at 8pm on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and on Wednesdays at 7.30pm – followed byUnsprung