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Woodland Edge

Attenborough diluted


Too sumptuous, too easy

How seductive are the saturated colours of ‘Africa’, the latest wildlife series with David Attenborough’s name against it.  The shots are often semi-abstract, reminiscent of the ‘Earth from the Air’ photos we loved about a decade ago. How winsome the springbok bokking, the melting eyes of the giraffe and the call to ‘admire’ the little turtles gamely making it to the sea, even if only one in a thousand will survive.

The photography is stunning: shiny silver ants scuttling across the Sahara, magnified a thousand times, clouds of butterflies above the rainforest, there for a few hours to mate.  And, yes, I am seduced by Attenborough’s gravelly gravitas. (My colleagues will testify how thrilled I have been to get hand-written declines from him, time after time: busy on Darwin, busy on Africa, just ... busy. You’re allowed not to fit me in, our national treasure).

But the fresh-faced producers have prostituted the authoritative, truly explanatory Attenborough on the altar of photographic heroics. There is no real narrative here, no explanation of why two currents bring such a profusion of life, no maps, very few Africans, (and those there are, mute, pretty much). Truly stunning shots are strung together, beautiful species upon beautiful species.  Lots of people in my professional world are nervous about using the word ‘ecosystems’ but that’s what’s lacking here – any real explanation of what is happening to the web of life in Africa. Well, correction, DA says that wildlife is under threat and that’s going to be covered. My bet’s on big game poaching - bad, for sure, but still the easy hit for the audience’s emotions.

There is one hilarious incident when we see how heroically the photographers strive to get a shot of a poor young turtle plucked out of the sea by an eagle. Manfully they labour, diving with the turtle and filming from the air. But they fail. Still, they reflect, it’s the best of all worlds, as they have a shot of the eagle diving and yet the turtle survives.  But what about the poor, poor hungry eagle chicks that might be starving somewhere? This heartstring thing sure gets tricky.

So, dear, sweet BBC producers, yes you are skilful and you have great patience and great gear, but stop asking me to think you brave in the heat of the Sahara. The more you show me of your daring-do helicopter flights and vehicles laden with hardware transecting the continent, the more I worry about carbon and wish for a half hour programme with some great shots as an aid to telling me something. What about one, TED kind of lecture:  very alive, very vivid, very visual, but explaining what is really going on in these extraordinary habitats, with a call to action.  And at a fraction of the cost.

This isn’t a wildlife series, it’s a wildlife photography series, sexy shot by sexy shot.  I do understand the pull, in that The National Forest is part of 2020 Vision, a UK photographic project about how important big habitats are to the earth and to us. Stunning photos are going to be displayed in The National Forest in March and April.  I’m not sure that even this is really able to tell complicated stories simply, but at least it’s trying. Similarly I chair TREE AID and we are doing much more integrated work using trees to fight poverty than anything suggested here.

My brother says he’s seen rhino socialising by a water hole during the night, by the way; it’s just he’s a maths teacher and not a BBC producer heroically waiting in his hide,  so it’s not a global first. Sorry, Tom.