The Green Planet review – David Attenborough’s gobsmacking, awe-inspiring return
One of the televisual joys I most remember from childhood was when a programme – often a nature documentary, but sometimes a few seconds on Sesame Street or a Tomorrow’s World demonstration of new technology – would show a flower unfolding with time-lapse photography. It was always sudden, always fleeting, and of course there weren’t even any recording buttons – let alone live pausing and rewinding facilities – that you could quickly press in order to capture and relive the delight. It was ever ephemeral, and I could never get enough.
Until now, with the latest gift from David Attenborough and his endlessly patient and dedicated team of camera operators (to whom a now traditional 10-minute coda is again devoted), The Green Planet (BBC One). The new five-part series presented by the veteran naturalist (though “veteran” hardly seems enough any more – Attenborough has now been making gobsmacking documentaries for two-thirds of the BBC’s entire broadcasting history) is about plants. Those that spring up in their tropical millions in the rainforests, those that endure in snowy wastelands, those who wrest life from the desiccated jaws of death in the desert, those that anchor themselves in rivers and streams – all of them and their cyclical splendours are gathered together for our awed delectation.
We begin with those rainforests. We watch seedlings sprout – that fresh inimitable green, bright against the brown-leaved forest floor – in the wake of a fallen tree, followed apparent seconds later by vines and their wagging, opportunistic tendrils searching for support. We are shown balsa tree blossoms filling and refilling with nectar seven times in a night to attract the pollinators they need, and the warty, blood-coloured petals of the gigantic, stinking rafflesia or “corpse flower” opening to welcome the carrion flies. We see the bioluminescent fungus known in Congo as “chimpanzee fire”, glowing in the dark as it releases its billions upon billions of spores into the air. And whenever you think there’s going to be a moment to catch all the breath you have gasped out in astonishment, they will hit you with something even more full of wonder – such as the leafcutter ants that are controlled by chemical signals sent out by a sprawling subterranean fungus and that bring back whatever type of leaf it commands, as well as excavating more space for their underlord as it grows. I mean – could we just take a moment, please?
The fundamentals of evolution, competition, photosynthesis, parasitism and so on are lightly covered. I sometimes wonder if the anthropomorphic metaphors (about “battlefields” and so on, and the implied ascription of human motivations and considerations to the flora and especially fauna that appear on screen) annoy purists. But I am not one of them, and if I were I think I would try to take comfort in the trade-off made. What you lose in appreciation of blind forces, you gain in mass accessibility and the rousing of interest in millions of viewers – some of whom, at least, will then go on to study and understand everything as fully as you could wish. But maybe only because someone described a vine as “strangling” a monstera first.
The extraordinary time-lapse photography – which is no longer a static thing but in the round – shows us seeds cracking, leaves unfurling, saplings straining greedily up towards the sky, as if an army of miniature drones had been hovering for months round every one. It is shown to be the BBC team’s development of work by the former US military engineer Chris Field. Enraptured by their nature docs and by time-lapse scenes in particular, he has spent his spare time for the past 10 years combining suitable cameras with motion controls, eventually allowing us to see things in a way they have never been seen before. There must be a documentary about him and people like him too someday, mustn’t there? At the same time, heartfelt thanks must be given to all. Assistant producer Louis Rummer-Downing described life eight days into what he did not yet know would be a two-week shoot for the leafcutter sequence, comprising shots from 7,000 different positions, which would last seconds on screen. “Wake up,” he said. “Film ants. Go to sleep. Dream of ants. Wake up …”
At the other end of the scale, however, is the moment when an Underwood’s bat arrives to drink from a flower just as Attenborough is standing next to one, explaining the process. Attenborough’s face lights up and his gaze – after a quick flick sideways to check with the cameraman that all is well – fixes on the miracle in front of him with as much glee and reverence as ever. From mountain gorillas to tiny tropical bats, via more moments of fascination than there are fungal spores in the Congolese air – has ever a man known, done or shared so much?