Graeme Blun­dell on sa­fari with At­ten­bor­ough

The BBC’s veteran nat­u­ral his­tory pre­sen­ter gives us a new vi­sion of Africa

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Graeme Blun­dell

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

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