Force of nature: This is no grab-and-go animal show
David Attenborough talks about his spectacular new series and its environmental message
Sir David Attenborough has been doing himself out of a job. For the BBC’s latest blockbuster wildlife series Dynasties he wanted the narration kept to a minimum – even though he is the narrator.
“Unjustifiable anthropomorphism is the danger,” he says. “You have to be very careful when you’re writing it that every time you say an animal ‘is jealous’, you are absolutely sure there is scientific evidence to make sure what you’re saying is correct. And I think we did that here.”
Dynasties is a new five-part series starting on November 18 which, each week, takes one of the most celebrated and endangered animals on the planet and devotes an entire hour to following a single group in detail.
It focuses on critical moments in the lives of the animals and their families: a chimpanzee leader (called David, coincidentally) battling for his position and his life on the edge of the Sahara; a dynasty of thousands of emperor penguins gathering on the frozen wastes of Antarctica; a powerful lioness, abandoned by her male protectors, shielding her family against the dangers of the African savannah; a feud between a mother and daughter painted wolf on the floodplains of Zimbabwe; and a tigress in the jungles of India attempting to raise her family under ever growing pressure from her rivals and humanity.
“Never before have we presented a landmark series with such powerful storytelling – about families, leaders and heroes,” says executive producer Mike Gunton. “Never before has a landmark show offered the viewer the opportunity to follow the lives of animals in such detail, each fighting against overwhelming odds for their own survival and the future of their families. These are some of the most dramatic and intense stories of their kind ever told.”
Obviously, the man in charge of the series is entitled to a little hyperbole, but Dynasties certainly represents a turn of the wheel from the BBC’s most recent Natural History series. Rather than being a sequence-led show, highlighting certain jaw-dropping behaviours from individual animals and then moving on, Dynasties tells longer stories over time.
In a media age that values GIF-able, must-see moments, Dynasties is slower and subtler. “The power of family is something that we never really have a chance to describe because it’s a complicated, more in-depth story that takes time to tell,” says Gunton.
He is aware that Dynasties’ more contemplative mood and lingering shots – a good deal of the first episode centres on the alpha chimp’s twitching toes – runs against the grab-and-go tenor of much current television. “I wasn’t sure whether it would be accepted. Charlotte Moore [the BBC’s head of content] said: ‘This is risky but we’ll go with it’. No one was more surprised than me.”
Dynasties comes at a time when money is tight at the BBC. “We do not believe what we currently do is sustainable with the resources we have,” the corporation’s director-general Tony Hall told the Royal Television Society conference in London last month. Yet, if there are to be cutbacks, they are unlikely to affect the big Attenborough shows.
The corporation has already given the green light to a number of series it plans to roll out over the coming years. Attenborough says the fact that these series have become the jewel in the crown of the corporation has been hard earned. “I think it’s something to be proud of. My memory goes back a long time – the first Natural History film I made was 1954. Then, when television was quite young, nobody else in the world was taking natural history seriously. A few years later it was suggested that we start a natural history unit, by two remarkable producers from BBC Bristol. The BBC gave them full backing and established the NHU formally. It was the first in the world. Through thick and thin, the BBC has backed it. There has never been any question about a lack of support.”
Next year, Netflix will release its own blue-chip natural history series, Our Planet. But such projects would be unimaginable if the BBC had not blazed a trail, says Attenborough.
“Slowly, we convinced other organisations in other countries that the audience was interested in this. It’s an amazing thing – the Americans for a long time thought that the only animals any viewer wanted to see were lions and giraffes and stuff in East Africa – with a particular emphasis on ‘Let’s tie ‘em up and bring ‘em back home alive’. The notion that you could get as big an audience for an insect as you could for a lion was regarded as ludicrous.”
He points to a competition run by the NHU in the 1960s to try to get the filmmakers interested in this new televisual field. “The winner was a film about a wood wasp parasitising another insect. It went out in the same week as a space-shot programme. It got a similar audience. The BBC noted that – not a lot of other people did. Its backing of natural history has been unwavering for 65 years.”
It’s telling that when you ask Attenborough for his favourite moment from the new series, he points to a scene born of unwavering dedication. “The thing that impressed me was in the emperor penguin film. We’ve made lots of programmes over the years about penguins, but in this one the cameraman was there for nine months. You may have seen a shot of a penguin looking at an egg on its feet, but never one filmed as perfectly as here. It is a series of perfect shots.
“I suppose if you had to pick one then it’s the fact that the cameraman was there when the very first chip came in the egg that was sitting on daddy’s feet. He had to be there a long time to get that – the temptation to go for a cup of coffee must have been great but he was out there and he got it.”
The success of Blue Planet II, the BBC’s most recent “big-ticket” series, was measured in more than ratings. Its shocking footage of the plastic in our oceans has led to genuine change, with Michael Gove, the UK environment secretary, for one, citing the series directly as a factor in his introduction of new regulations.
Attenborough is not one for finger wagging (“I’ve always felt that show-and-tell is the correct way”) but he says that Dynasties does comes with an environmental message of its own. “When you think of the range of this series, going from the South Pole to West Africa, the common worry is space. We have to allow animals space. The telling images are long shots showing the encroachment of human population. The big unspoken factor is the acceptance that animals are under pressure.”
Attenborough, 92, has seen too much to offer glib solutions. “It’s a very difficult thing to deal with; men, women and children need space too. Look at tigers in India. Tigers eat human children, they hunt them, they do. So people living alongside tigers have got a very, very tough problem. They have to be very strongly convinced that tigers have a right to live.”
Solving the problem, he says, is a job for the politicians. “Our job is to raise people’s passion and belief and desire to recognise that animals have a right to some sort of space.”
• Dynasties starts on November 18 at 4pm on BBC Earth.
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