Graeme Blundell on safari with Attenborough
The BBC’s veteran natural history presenter gives us a new vision of Africa
DAVID Attenborough returns this week with another of his socalled blue-chip BBC natural science series, the expression quite properly signalling prestige and gravity. Though, as always, the magisterial Attenborough, alarmingly bow-legged and wheezing a little at 86, manages to tread that line between education and entertainment in those battered old brown shoes he seems to wear in every scene. After all, he’s been speaking to us from the box for 60 years, popping up from every corner of the planet, the focus and star of a television genre he created almost single-handedly.
His new six-part series, Africa: Eye to Eye with the Unknown, presents what he calls the unfilmed stories of this intensely photographed continent, first captured in 1909 when film pioneer Cherry Kearton took his monstrous camera (built by the Charles Urban Trading Company of Piccadilly) on safari to East Africa. But Attenborough’s many BBC camera operators travel light these days, capturing their unfamiliar images and narratives equipped with sophisticated electronic and digital equipment. There are the Cineflex gyro-stabilised cameras attached to helicopters for aerial filming, high-speed video, and a new generation of miniature units operated remotely. And while the series covers a relatively small part of Africa, there’s a lot to see. As TV’s voice of science and natural history says, ‘‘ There’s nowhere in the world where wildlife puts on a greater show.’’
He reveals monkeys clambering in snow- covered cedar trees in the Atlas Mountains and hippos that swim in the sea in one of the few places the Congo reaches the coast. Lizards leap among lions to devour flies, dolphins spray sardines with high-intensity ultrasounds and pick off the debilitated fish, and butterflies mate atop mountains in balletic dances.
There are still plenty of elephants, big cats and rhinos, those animals ‘‘ we might think we know all about’’ — but he reveals parts of their lives rarely filmed before. Giraffes fight by slewing and craning their necks with such force that they can be knocked off their feet, wielding their heads and horns like medieval spiked maces. A group of supposedly illtempered black rhinos assembles at night, revealing the usually testy beasts to be surprisingly sociable and tender after dark, nuzzling males gently courting the females.
Attenborough begins his exploration in the first episode tonight with the Kalahari desert. There, in the largest uninterrupted expanse of sand on the planet, are the ‘‘ fairy circles’’: circular, barren patches that stretch for more than 2000km. From the air they look like pock marks left by huge raindrops and scientists have no idea what they are or how they were formed.
Then, gathering speed, he shows us the comical tiptoe-standing meerkats and their friendly sentinels, the fork-tailed drongos, who use their alarm calls to steal food from under the meerkats’ snouts. It’s the price they pay for protection. After that, Attenborough, making one of his sometimes quite theatrical appearances — often photographed from the air on some scrubby mountain top — moves on to the ambush predators, the resourceful leopards. Then there are the fearless badgers and, looking quite out of place, those fighting giraffes of north west Namibia.
Series producer James Honeyborne attempted to move away from the familiar, adopting a wide-angle, intimate filming style where conditions allowed, rarely shooting anything — from elephants to ants — from tripod height or from the door perspective of a four-wheel-drive vehicle. His camera crews were down in the dirt, bumping into forest elephants and lowland gorillas, meeting the animals on their eye-line and entering their worlds.
One cameraman even sat on the carcass of a dead whale, filming as 30 great white sharks chomped away on the blubber. Another was trapped up a tree at night, enduring four hours of relentless headbutting as a suspicious elephant tried to shake him out.
There were other dangers, too, potential hazards such as the risk of exposure to ebola virus, attack by rabid animals and the possibility of kidnap and terrorist activity. Honeyborne’s team, who spent more than 1500 days in the field, were even trained in mine extraction.
In classical times there was a proverb, Attenborough says in his introduction to the glossy coffee-table book accompanying the series, written by Michael Bright, a former executive producer for the BBC natural history unit. The people in Greece and Rome would say of the immense continent that lay to the south across the Mediterranean Sea: ‘‘ There’s always something new coming out of Africa.’’ And so Attenborough proves in this series full of visual highlights and magical moments in the wilderness that would thrill any jaded safari veteran.
As always his judgment of his audience is shrewd, holding us captive for five hours before hitting us with the tough stuff. The final hour deals with the horrors of poaching and the wholesale killing of rhinos, the illegal hunting for ivory, the prospect of an Africa without lions, overgrazing and human-caused climate change, and the people and guns all the new roads are bringing to the wild.
Attenborough’s series provides a sense of continuity, a link to that time when wildlife TV was a discrete generic category and its filmmakers were serious people largely from the scientific community. Natural history filmmakers stressed a scientific, dispassionate approach to nature, seldom interfering, and turning an analytical eye on their subjects at the expense of storytelling. But dear old Attenborough loves the stories and is a master narrator with that sonorous voice, the only set of tonsils that can stretch a sentence across the entire continent.
He is always welcome on our screens in this new era when wildlife TV formats more usually encompass travel and adventure, soap opera and cop shows, as well as natural history. In the transformed TV wildlife landscape, nature has a multiplicity of guises. There are celebrity travelogues, conservation lectures, adventure and shipping yarns, and reality-style ‘‘ vets and pets’’ series such as Pit Bulls & Parolees. As
often as not, they celebrate the antics of human performers such as Steve Irwin as much as seriously exploring wildlife behaviour. But as series such as Africa demonstrate, no one has done more than Attenborough to force us to reevaluate our place in the natural world, and the amount of ecological damage, habitat destruction and pollution we cause.
TV is increasingly global, framed and structured by international contexts. The critic Meaghan Morris once called this a kind of ‘‘ positive unoriginality’’ and it’s nothing to be ashamed of. Everyone borrows from everyone else. But I just can’t watch the popular My Kitchen Rules, a juggernaut in ratings terms this year, and not think of the far cleverer Come Dine with Me, which has been whizzing around pay-TV’s Lifestyle channels since 2005.
There are breathtaking conceptual similarities but also more than enough points of difference to avoid copyright infringement. Come Dine with Me is the reality series that took the camera out of the studio and into the kitchens and dining rooms — sometimes hastily improvised — of real people. They all seem to take great delight in cooking badly on TV — and often behaving just as poorly — as they burn souffles. They also check out underwear drawers. People flirt outrageously, many get horribly drunk and desserts have been tossed out of windows.
Come Dine with Me was dreamed up five years ago by Granada television producer Nell Butler, who thought the combination of cookery, snooping around people’s homes and the social struggle at the dinner table would provide voyeuristic drama.
She wasn’t wrong and her show has moved from a cult pleasure to become one of modern TV’s great successes. It is one of pay-TV’s best performers, with a strong following on the LifeStyle and LifeStyle Food channels, where it sometimes seems to appear in endless cycles.
If you haven’t seen it, Butler’s disarmingly simple concept puts together five strangers from the same area to host dinner parties on consecutive nights across a week. Three courses are served and at the end of the meal each guest — away from the others — gives a score out of 10, usually tipsily in a brightly lit cab on the way home. The biggest difference between this format and My Kitchen Rules is the voice-over from the brilliant, acerbic English comic Dave Lamb. He has the gift of seeming to say exactly what you are thinking about the show’s madcap characters.
My Kitchen Rules is altogether bigger, seemingly with a production budget of several small local movies. This year it has completely overwhelmed MasterChef: The Professionals with the sheer slickness of its presentation and the brazenness of the over-the-top characters, some quite loathsome, all particularly well cast. It’s no longer a long-running series but serious ‘‘ event TV’’, primed to anchor Seven to a huge year, even though the ratings period has just started.
It still fascinates me the way cooking shows, once considered a daytime format and conventionally gendered as feminine, are now a staple of mainstream programming. Cooking is now a central part of the hybridisation of formats that characterises contemporary TV, incorporated into other styles of programming. Cooking shows are almost as old as TV itself, but who could have imagined these culinary juggernauts and the way they so cleverly interweave spectacle and human foibles in such contrived, hard-nosed commercial settings.
Certainly not TV’s first chef. Philip Harben had the first cooking program on British TV, starting in 1946 on the BBC and, of course, broadcast in black and white. Demobbed from the air force’s catering division, Harben was one of the first stars to be created by the new medium. He was apparently unable to dine in public with his wife: when the couple did venture out to a local eatery, he would look up to see the pale faces of villagers pressed against the windows in the hope of glimpsing him.
Harben often used his personal rations (Britain was on war rations until about 1954) as ingredients. He showed his audience how to cook with what was available, and he was famous for his chips and steak and kidney pie. The spitting image of Falstaff, Shakespeare’s gluttonous antihero, Harben sported a marvellous beard and a fruity BBC accent, and always wore a striped apron over his stout belly. His no-nonsense approach assumed his audience had never boiled an egg, much less whisked up a cinnamon and calvados souffle.
Then, in the early 1950s, Phyllis ‘‘ Fanny’’ Cradock and her third husband, monocled and drink-sodden John ‘‘ Johnnie’’ Cradock, quickly established themselves as Britain’s leading experts on all things culinary. Fanny, with her evening gown, dangling earrings, pearls and bouffant hair, introduced gourmet cooking, including the prawn cocktail and green mashed potato, to TV.
Johnnie was her stooge; she chased him around the studio and lacerated him with ferocious cries of, ‘‘ Come on, Johnnie, hurry up.’’ Fanny was the first to present food as a ritualised form of TV entertainment. Now, in Australia at least, food has also become our most popular entertainment. I FIRST caught Golden Sandals: The Art of Reg Mombassa on SBS about six years ago and I’ve never forgotten it. Now it’s popping up on that fine arts channel Studio, where hidden gems are always to be found. ‘‘ I’m just a birthday party clown doing pencil tricks for the people,’’ says the rock star, artist, writer and shirt designer, aka Chris O’Doherty, in this beguiling piece of TV biography. From rock band Mental as Anything to his work with Mambo, the irreverent surf-wear company, the lugubriously mugged Mombassa has made people sing, laugh and dance at the sheer cleverness of his creations, the Hieronymus Bosch-like T-shirts and yardage providing a nice opportunity to bridge the gap between the wall painting and reality.
Golden Sandals, stylishly directed by Haydn Keenan, uses animation, stand-up monologues to camera, family interviews and Mombassa’s music to take us into the world of Reg, a universe of suburban bungalows, space critters and chooks with their bums on fire. He says he shies away from drawing women, black people and homosexuals. ‘‘ My drawings look insulting even when I’m trying to be flattering,’’ he says in his fluent but otherworldly way. ‘‘ And those groups of people are particularly sensitive to gratuitous insults after having been vilified for so many years.’’ Someone has granted him a genetic and cultural licence to make fun of the ridiculous behaviour of white men, he believes, his knack for hallucinatory disquiet hitting the public nerve and the collector’s wallet.
Patrick White loved the silken detail of his landscapes but hated the T-shirts. ‘‘ What’s he doing all that rubbish for?’’ the old literary curmudgeon wailed.
The 26-minute film, as artful as any of Mombassa’s poetically aggressive paintings, examines the menacing intent behind the silliness and buffoonery, and it is simply irresistible.
Golden Sandals: The Art of Reg Mombassa, Tuesday, 10pm, Studio.
An elephant towers above antelope at a waterhole in