A chilling account of the ape’s fast-track to extinction
Along with pandas and baby seals, orangutans are an irresistible symbol of man’s inhumanity to the rest of the planet. They have big, wise eyes and a deep-set melancholy. It’s no easy feat communicating existential angst suspended upside down from a tree, yet this always-perturbed-looking great ape manages it. Thus veteran natural history documentarian Rowan Musgrave was already pushing on an open door in Red Ape: Saving the
Orangutan (BBC Two), his portrait of a species on a fast-track to extinction.
The orangutan population has declined precipitously, we learnt, as its natural habitat in Borneo is ravaged to make way for lucrative palm oil plantations. The film tugged efficiently at the heartstrings. It also explained how each of us was complicit in the devastation. Palm oil is an ingredient in fast food and confectionery. The implication was that every time we chomp a burger or chocolate bar, we are threatening the ape’s future.
The documentary doubled as a chilling case study in how political upheaval impacts on the natural world. Three-quarters of Borneo lies within Indonesia and the country’s slide into dictatorship with the coming to power of General Suharto in 1967 was, the film argued, the worst thing to happen to the orangutan. Under Suharto, industrial-scale logging was unleashed upon Borneo, wiping out vast tracts of the ape’s rainforest home.
Quixotically, the transition towards democracy in the Nineties deepened the predicament further. As power was dispersed to the regions, a push towards palm oil cultivation began – a lifeblood to areas deep in poverty.
One disappointment in the film was the absence of Indonesian contributors. We met care workers from Borneo, but the talking heads were mostly Westerners. There was more than a whiff of condescension as Indonesia’s shoddy shepherding of its rich natural heritage was discussed by outsiders.
Red Ape’s heroine was Dr Karmele Llano Sánchez, founder of a rescue centre in Borneo. Top-level cocklewarming ensued when we met the shelter’s orphaned orangutans, cuter than a toyshop’s cuddly toy aisle as they were carted en masse by wheelbarrow.
Their plight and Sánchez’s work felt slightly detached from the broader issue of Indonesia’s environmental record. Musgrave could, in particular, have done better in delving into the animal trafficking that is adding to the orangutans’s woes (are they smuggled abroad? How commonplace is it to keep apes as pets in Indonesia?).
Still, the cutesy moments were irresistible. If Red Ape was a stealthy attempt to win us over to the wider argument regarding sustainable farming, it succeeded effortlessly.
The globalised underpinnings of modern blockbuster television are elsewhere illustrated by Netflix’s new whodunit. Safe is written and executive produced by American crime doyen Harlan Coben, features his countryman Michael C Hall with a wonky British accent, is part-financed by the French team behind tragically curtailed bonkbuffet Versailles and set in a gated community somewhere in England.
Of these many components the most egregious is Hall, best known for serial killer drama Dexter. Here he’s bafflingly cast as Tom Delaney, a widowed surgeon searching for his missing daughter. The role requires the buttoned-down actor to engage in “banter” and say stuff like “oi!”.
Lots of other things about Safe felt rickety too. Coben’s take on modern Britain was stagy, from the cheeky chappie millionaire (Nigel Lindsay) who fired off innuendos in the manner of Sid James to the tipsy Irishman (Emmett Scanlan) larking with the family while chugging a lager. There was also a frisky French teacher (Audrey Fleurot) potentially carrying on with one of her students and a pair of hard-charging lady cops – Hannah Arterton and Sherlock’s Amanda Abbington – who didn’t get on.
Just like the pacy thrillers that have made Coben a bestselling author, Safe is all about the plot. Tom was required to play Cluedo by deducing which of his friends had a hand in his daughter’s disappearance. Should suspicion fall on the best pal (Marc Warren) with whom he shares a complicated past? What about the nightclub owner with a connection to Tom’s dead wife?
Coben made every one of his characters feel plausibly sinister and tossed in many cliffhangers. Safe may be hackneyed and written to formula, but the mystery was assembled with a watchmaker’s eye and the fandango whirred by with ruthless efficiency.
Red Ape: Saving the Orangutan ★★★★ Safe ★★★
Save this species: BBC Two’s Natural World asked what hope remains for the orangutan