THE BIG READ: Here's to you, Mr Attenborough - Times LIVE
Sun Apr 30 20:33:33 SAST 2017

THE BIG READ: Here's to you, Mr Attenborough

Darrel Bristow-Bovey | 2017-01-27 07:43:10.0
HI, I'M DARREL THE SNOW LEOPARD: A scene from 'Planet Earth II', shot in Ladakh, India.

Never mind the polar icecaps, we need to do something about preserving David Attenborough.

There he is in the opening sequence of Planet Earth II, 90 years old and silver as a bear, literally still on the air, floating in the basket of a balloon somewhere high above the Himalayas with a frosted world of jagged white peaks below him. Your heart swells at the sight of him, and especially the sound. He is like a cycad forest or the Serengeti or the snows of Kilimanjaro - surely he has always been there, always talking in those rolling sonorous tones, like a river passing out of a dark valley between canyon walls and into the sunlight, and surely he always will be.

For me he is like Test cricket: any world that can play host to something so splendid and old-fashioned, so eccentric and sane isn't yet beyond hope. You look at him and think that as long as he's around, the planet will be around, therefore he must never be allowed to die.

I was in a lodge in the Pilanesberg last week with the BBC, in a lovely room all decked out with tropical plants and trilling with birdsong, watching Planet Earth II, the brand-new six-part BBC natural history series shot entirely in 4K high-definition so granular in its clarity that you can see the spiracles in an Amazon caterpillar and count the individual whiskers of a chacma baboon. Do I seem gushy? I feel gushy. Planet Earth II has been viewed by 30million people in the UK since its broadcast late last year - nearly half the population, and the other half are damn fools who don't know what they're missing.

The show has recently been criticised in the UK by the kind of sour-pussed self-promoters who know how to wrangle attention off the efforts of others.

What was the criticism? That the show is too beautiful. The beef is that viewers just sit around looking at how lovely nature is, how unexpected and infinitely varied it still manages to be, and are allowed to feel transported and elevated rather than scolded and shamed for their part in degrading the natural world. I suppose it's the curious modern conviction that better results are achieved by blaming than engaging, by chastising rather than inspiring.

Not me - I'm all about the inspiration. Some people watch superhero movies and skip around afterwards pretending to be Thor or the amazing Spiderman; it turns out that I do the same thing with wildlife documentaries.

It should be recorded that there was a bit of wine about at the screening, which led to the following conversation later that night:

"Darrel, what are you doing up on that drainpipe?"

"Ssssh! I'm being stealthy. I'm a leopard."

"I don't think you are a leopard."

"I am - watch."

"That window ledge looks quite narrow."


I have never actually seen a leopard lose its balance and fall off the side of a two-storey building and land like a wet hessian sack loosely filled with Donald Trump ad-libs so I'm not sure if my version did it justice, but I tried my best.

In episode 6, Cities, we encounter animals evolving to co-exist with humans: the comic raccoons of Toronto; the rascally rooftop langurs of Jodhpur; the wild Ethiopian hyenas of the walled city of Harar whose behaviour changes as they enter the gates after dark to be fed scraps by local butchers.

What's curious is that, at the end of the series, after being so genuinely entranced by the delicate majesties of the natural world, it was still people that I came away thinking of most, and not in the "Humans suck" way that the modern world wants to insist upon, but with a renewed sense of awe and affection at the better sides of us:

the dedication to spending four years to make 45 minutes of television in the most remote and inaccessible corners of the world; the forbearance of the city folk of Jodhpur who find a way to live in loving tolerance with thieving rhesus macaques; the specialised skills of the cameraman who can track a peregrine falcon diving at 320km/hour with the variegated skyline of Manhattan behind it and not once lose focus; the patience and love of the individuals camping out night after night in the Mumbai darkness with an infrared camera in the hope of spotting a leopard.

People want you to be angry and there is much to be angry about but there is also beauty and excellence and things worth celebrating. I'm looking at you, David Attenborough.

Planet Earth II starts on Sunday February 5 at 4pm on BBC Earth channel 184. The first episode will be simulcast on BBC Brit channel 120.


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