There is a disturbance in the waters at the BBC Natural History Unit (NHU). David Attenborough, the beloved stalwart of quality wildlife programming, is now 87 years old. Confronted by his impending retirement, the BBC are having to look for new ways to approach this reliable, yet slightly jaded, genre of documentary. And so far, the results have been mixed.
Traditionally, the BBC formula for wildlife film has relied heavily on Attenborough-esque presenters talking softly and articulately about the film subjects. Known in the trade as the expository mode of documentary, the cameras explicitly capture natural scenes, embellished by informative narration. However, not only is the iconic face of this mode now approaching retirement, but there is a grumbling sense that ‘we’ve seen it all before’. The time is ripe to shake up the natural history documentary form.
The BBC has approached this challenge in a number of differing, experimental ways. We have, for example, the interactive Spy in the…, shows , whilst at the other end of the spectrum, the heavily dramatised Hidden Kingdoms series. But has either approach proven successful enough to rival the mighty Attenborough-fronted success of series such as Planet Earth, Life and more recently, Africa?
Spy in the… programmes are part of the BBC Wildlife Specials series that aims to approach filming nature in innovative ways. In the case of Penguin: spy on the ice and Dolphin: spy in the pod, the filmmakers utilise remote controlled, camera-laden ‘spy creatures.’ Supposedly, the facsimile creatures infiltrate the animal communities to intimately reveal their communications and interactions. However, the format doesn’t quite work. Too much time is spent filming the spy creatures and not enough on the true animals. As a result, we feel less like we are spying on the pod, and more like we are spying on the robotic creature-camera hybrids.
The footage captured by the spy creatures is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a little shaky, and is only used sparingly to supplement the film shot using more conventional techniques. As a result, the programme feels more like a gimmick than truly educational or inspiring. However, the premise is not an entire failure; the ‘home-made’ feel to the spy camera footage does inject a sense of intimacy into the film. And there is something quite endearing about a robotic dolphin zipping through the waves with its adoptive pod. Perhaps not quite the finished article, but a promising step in a fresh direction.
Hidden Kingdoms represents an entirely contrasting approach to reviving the genre. For this series, the BBC has embraced the modern penchant for grand, cinematic camerawork. In episode one, we observe the exhilarating tales of the survival of tiny African mammals as they race against flames, battle fearsome rattlesnakes and struggle to stay afloat in raging torrents of floodwater. There is no questioning the quality of the camerawork—some of the images would not look out of place in a Hollywood fiction film. Indeed, many have asked whether Hidden Kingdoms strays too far from the truth to be classed as a true documentary series. In reality, the elephant shrew was racing against digitally superimposed flames, the mouse never met the rattlesnake that he appeared to battle and the floodwater rained from the hand of the filmmaker. The question is, does this devalue Hidden Kingdoms?
In my opinion, it does not. Hidden Kingdoms is riveting viewing, representing nature at its most dramatic and interesting. Every constructed scene remains true to biological behaviours known to occur in the wild. Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Media Show,’ Wendy Darke, the head of the BBC NHU, reminded listeners that if all the filming had been purely natural “most of the exciting drama would be missed. It is a constant challenge,” Darke continues, “to attempt to bring these wildlife stories into the mainstream.”
However, detractors argue that viewers may believe the footage to be real, and therefore feel deceived upon discovery that many of the scenes are manipulated. I believe, however, that so long as the BBC are upfront about the techniques used to create the show—clearly indicating the precise relation between what is being shown and the truth – then Hidden Kingdoms is a legitimate form of educational entertainment.
Both Spy in the… and Hidden Kingdoms are valiant attempts to update natural history documentary. Although neither approach feels entirely successful, the fact that the BBC are actively seeking new and innovative ways to broadcast wildlife science can only be a good thing. Moving forward, it will be important for broadcasting companies to continue experimenting with new approaches, in order to strike a clear balance between truth and drama. There is life after Attenborough. We’ve just got to find it.Daisy McInnerney is currently studying for an MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College London. Image Credit: Johann Edwin Heupel (via Flickr)