TV and Radio
David Attenborough explores the miracle of his creation on ‘Blue Planet II’ while ‘Generation What?’ asks millennials (almost) anything
Screen and sound reviews
Just what does the planet have to do to impress David Attenborough?
It isn’t that the iconic presenter’s voice of quiet reassurance is ever less than enthusiastic about the hidden wonders of the natural world in Blue Planet II (BBC One,
Sunday, 8pm), which his warmly omniscient narration suggests he might have actually created. That would explain his intimate familiarity with creatures and behaviours never before revealed to us. Marine life and he; they roll deep.
In this gorgeous documentary, a feast of visuals and, more surprisingly, sound that has been four years and several thousand leagues in the making, you encounter dizzying mysteries and quietly devastating discoveries every couple of minutes.
An unsuspecting tern glides above the shimmering Indian Ocean. Suddenly in its humongous mouth and whips it back down into the sea. “The giant trevally,” Attenborough says, in the unflappable tone of a headmaster encountering the school rascal when a pale silvery apparition propels itself out of the water like a tomahawk. It grabs an unsuspecting tern in its humongous mouth, and whips it back into the shimmering Indian Ocean. Only one thing stumps Attenborough: why do mobula rays leap so majestically out of the water? “No one knows,” he whispers. Frankly, I think they just want to be on the show.
Who could blame them? Blue Planet II is an inspiring and humbling education.
To see a tiny, technicolour tuskfish painstakingly batter a clam open against an improvised anvil, is to recognise a fish using tools and problem-solving skills. There’s always a temptation to anthropomorphise animal behaviour; to conceive of the distinct evolution and display of separate species as a kind of flattering impersonation of our own.
Attenborough is allowed one wry gag, at the fearsome sight of the Japanese kobudai fish, whose bulbous face is something even Hieronymous Bosch would have considered over the top. “In female terms, he’s particularly handsome,” says Attenborough. Oh, David, you sly dogfish.
Those terms, however, are subject to extraordinary change. One female kobudai skulks away to completely transform gender, emerging later to brutally depose the ruling male. So long, handsome.
The programme employs similarly absorbing storytelling technique, concentrating on a mother and child walrus, chosen from an unhappy wilderness, crammed together on the vastly diminishing icebergs of the Arctic. That 40 per cent of this ice has melted in the last 30 years should be alarming enough. But the show understands the viewing habits of its own fauna and, hopefully, what it required to budge them from complacency. Like that ingenuitive tuskfish, Blue Planet II has its tools, and it knows how to use them.
While we’re on the subject, are you aged between 18 and 34? Have you ever had sex with a stranger? (Did you like it?) Have you ever made love with more than one person at the same time? (Care to elaborate?) Ever masturbated? All right, politics: You can either screw others over or get screwed yourself. Agree or disagree? These, a genuine sample of a 149-question, pan-European survey into millennial attitudes, are questions that ought to be answered with a question. Who’s asking?
Generation What? (RTÉ Two, Tuesday, 10.30pm), which began as a televised survey in France in 2013, and has since spread to respondents in 14 European countries hungry for simplistic snapshots, is apparently so down with the kidz it can even ask if you’ve ever smoked a doobie with your freakin’ parents! Oh, no you di’int, Generation What! Strange, then, that it should shy away completely from one of the most obvious and heated questions facing this generation.
The Irish edition is presented by the affable Eoghan McDermott, whose leather biker jacket seems a more honest choice than a lab coat. McDermott teases out the results with a history professor (“On a frivolous note, the way millennials speak . . . ” he prods), a pair of sociologists on high stools, a panel that includes a politician, a journalist and a very apologetic priest, a conspicuously diverse studio audience, and a galaxy of talking heads filmed at home in Ireland and abroad – the last of whom convey most sense.
Take one man’s level-headed response to this presumably poorly translated doozie: There is too much sex. Yes or no? “The way they use sex to sell everything now, it’s pathetic,” he says. Thus shamed, the show will only stick with the topic for the first quarter of its running time.
Still, the intersection of the body and politics is an urgent issue for young people today, who,
Remember, millennials, don’t trust anyone over 34. ‘Generation What?’ won’t stop asking you about sex, but when it comes to consequences, it doesn’t want to know
to breeze through other findings, are mostly liberal, broadly feminist, bitterly alert to inequality, significantly appreciative of same-sex relationships, receptive to immigration, and, by an overwhelming majority (80 per cent), utterly indifferent to religion.
Why, then, among the generation most likely to be affected by the issue, is there not a single question, answer or opinion volunteered on the subject of abortion? Did a survey that wonders so frankly about your experience with sex toys and S&M, never think to ask about pregnancies, wanted or otherwise? It’s here that the whole operation, and the Irish undertaking especially, seems unforgivably craven. Remember, millennials, don’t trust anyone over 34. Generation What? won’t stop asking you about sex, but when it comes to consequences, it doesn’t want to know.
There’s an interesting moment, early in David McWilliams’ Ireland (TV3, Thursday, 10pm), when its presenter describes the property market as a dangerous runaway train, then somehow adopts a voice haughtier than his own when imitating a naysayer. He calls this person “a mainstream economist”. That begs an obvious question: what the hell is David McWilliams?
The implication is that the prepossessing national broadcaster, newspaper columnist, political cabaret host and best-selling author is an “alternative” economist, or, better still, an “indie” economist. McWilliams, who famously predicted the last crash, kicks out the dismal science jams The Man doesn’t want you to hear: four chords and the fiduciary truth.
That sense is amplified by his new show for TV3, which aches to be described as a rock’n’roll economic cabaret. It is announced by a live guitar and drums duo, grinding out the same chunky riff through every ad break, as though to illustrate the law of diminishing returns.
It is initiated with a DMW monologue, couched in a plain-folks anecdote, on the subject to hand: whether we’re experiencing another property bubble so soon after the last catastrophe. (Spoiler: We are.) In his practiced everyman tones, McWilliams offers a clear analysis of how skyrocketing housing prices can still panic a market into buying, while the rental market, with prices higher than ever before, is stuck.
McWilliams foretells “a calamity much worse than the last one”, a situation, he concludes, that is “extraordinary and unforgiveable”. The audience energetically applauds. He’s a hit.
That spiel leads to several pop-up panel discussions conducted with specialists and the hoi polloi, on fold-out plastic chairs around a sparse studio. The whole shebang is periodically interrupted by micro routines from cheeky-chap comedian Andrew Maxwell and an extended Leo Varadkar impression from Oliver Callan.
Stand-up comedy and economics have both been labelled the new rock’n’roll in their time, but they show little natural overlap here other than to make it an excessively blokey show. The serious conversation should give you antagonisms: particularly the articulate pessimism of financial expert and former mortgage broker Karl Deeter and the effective optimism of Hugh Brennan’s housing co-operative, Ó Cualann. The mild, topical comedy (you couldn’t call it satire) just laughs them off.
For all his dismissal of the mainstream, McWilliams has never concealed his desire to be popular: he is merrily riled when one of the few women speakers archly describes one reality for teachers and quite another for cossetted TV presenters. Here he tries to offer solutions rather than outline the problem, but, mercifully, he won’t be glib.
“The economist in me can’t see a way out of it right now, unfortunately,” he concludes. That seems emblematic of the show, wedged between economics and entertainment, and, like that paradoxical market, simultaneously panicked and stuck.
Eoghan McDermott’s biker jacket in ‘Generation What?’ is a more honest choice than a lab coat
Two male kobudai fighting. When a female kobudai reaches a certain size and age she can turn into a male.