At­ten­bor­ough: too much alarmism over cli­mate change is a turn-off

Vet­eran broad­caster tells Jonathan Watts his new BBC se­ries about en­dan­gered species will still be grip­ping and en­ter­tain­ing

The Observer - - News -

Sir David At­ten­bor­ough, the world’s most fa­mous wildlife sto­ry­teller, be­lieves re­peated warn­ings about hu­man de­struc­tion of the nat­u­ral world can be a “turn-off” for view­ers – a com­ment that is likely to reignite the de­bate about whether the vet­eran broad­caster’s pri­mary duty is to en­ter­tain or ed­u­cate.

Ahead of the launch of Dy­nas­ties, a new five-part BBC doc­u­men­tary se­ries, the pre­sen­ter of Blue Planet II and Planet Earth II said the im­pact of habi­tat loss, cli­mate change and pol­lu­tion were ev­i­dent ev­ery­where, but sound­ing the alarm too of­ten could be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive.

“We do have a prob­lem. Every time the bell rings, every time that image [of a threat­ened an­i­mal] comes up, do you say ‘re­mem­ber, they are in dan­ger’? How of­ten do you say this with­out be­com­ing a real turn-off? It would be ir­re­spon­si­ble to ig­nore it, but equally I be­lieve we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to make pro­grammes that look at all the rest of the as­pects and not just this one,” At­ten­bor­ough, 92, told the Ob­server.

The first pro­gramme of the new se­ries will air at 8.30pm next Sun­day. Four of the five episodes will fo­cus on a “ruler” – lion, chim­panzee, wolf and tiger – fol­low­ing their power strug­gles, fight for sur­vival and at­tempts to ex­tend their fam­ily into the next gen­er­a­tion. The other – about an em­peror pen­guin – will look at how co­op­er­a­tion rather than com­pe­ti­tion is the only way to sur­vive in the harsh Antarc­tic en­vi­ron­ment.

The pro­duc­ers prom­ise the most dra­matic scenes will ri­val any­thing the award-win­ning BBC Nat­u­ral His­tory Unit has pro­duced over re­cent years. View­ers will see the des­per­ate and vi­o­lent strug­gle of an el­derly male chim­panzee and the heart-thump­ing at­tempt of a mother pen­guin to res­cue her chick from a crevasse, but the sub­text is that the fight for space and sur­vival is be­ing waged not just within species but with mankind. And how strongly that mes­sage is put across is likely to pose more ques­tions about whether At­ten­bor­ough’s ap­proach is too light-handed.

The broad­caster’s nar­ra­tive skills were ap­par­ent in Blue Planet II, which was watched by mil­lions and was cred­ited with push­ing the is­sue of plas­tic pol­lu­tion up the po­lit­i­cal agenda, but those doc­u­men­taries were also crit­i­cised for dodg­ing the more fun­da­men­tal prob­lems of in­dus­trial fish­ing and over­con­sump­tion.

Last week a re­port by WWF said wildlife was be­ing lost at such a dev­as­tat­ing rate that it now threat­ened civil­i­sa­tion. The sci­en­tists in­volved with the Liv­ing Planet study found that hu­man­ity had wiped out 60% of the mam­mals, birds, fish and rephap­pened. tiles that they had been re­search­ing be­tween 1970 and 2014.

The new BBC se­ries ad­dresses the ter­ri­fy­ingly high level of wildlife ex­tinc­tion (for ex­am­ple, 95% of tigers have dis­ap­peared in the last cen­tury) and men­tions drought and con­flict along with en­croach­ing hu­man com­mu­ni­ties, but it steers clear of put­ting any blame on view­ers them­selves, most of whom will be first-world con­sumers whose life­styles are one of the main driv­ing forces be­hind habi­tat loss and cli­mate change.

At­ten­bor­ough said his aim is not to be overtly cam­paign­ing. “We all have re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as cit­i­zens but our pri­mary job is to make a se­ries that is grip­ping and truth­ful, and talks about some­thing im­por­tant – and to tell it in its round full­ness,” he said. “These are not eco­log­i­cal pro­grammes. They are not pros­e­lytis­ing pro­grammes. they are not alarmist pro­grammes. What they are is a new form of wildlife film­mak­ing.”

Dy­nas­ties was filmed over two years in five lo­ca­tions. While pre­vi­ous BBC wildlife doc­u­men­taries have been crit­i­cised for sim­u­lat­ing or recre­at­ing scenes in stu­dios, At­ten­bor­ough – who wrote and nar­rated the script af­ter see­ing the tapes in Lon­don – said the new pro­grammes are a warts-and-all record of what hap­pened dur­ing that time.

When this ap­proach was orig­i­nally pro­posed by ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer Mike Gun­ton it evoked as­ton­ish­ment, said At­ten­bor­ough. “Their so­lu­tion is ex­traor­di­nar­ily brave. They said, ‘We won’t fab­ri­cate any­thing. We will take a sit­u­a­tion that what we know from re­searchers in the field is likely to de­velop into some­thing in­ter­est­ing’ and then they fol­lowed it for two years,” he said.

“When Mike first talked to me about it I said, ‘You’re mad. In two years you can’t know for sure that some­thing will hap­pen. You have got to be there when it does. At the end of it, what if noth­ing hap­pens? That’s a huge fi­nan­cial in­vest­ment.’ But it Ex­traor­di­nar­ily in­ter­est­ing things hap­pened in all five lo­ca­tions that they chose.”

Gun­ton said the team went through a cast­ing process to iden­tify which an­i­mals would have “box-of­fice ap­peal”, but they were also cho­sen be­cause they were en­dan­gered and be­cause hu­man pres­sures – es­pe­cially in­tru­sion into their ter­ri­tory – were adding to an al­ready tough strug­gle for sur­vival.

The goal, he said, was to pro­vide view­ers with in­sights into wildlife that would then mo­ti­vate them to get more in­volved. “You want peo­ple to un­der­stand the won­der of na­ture. Some spin-off is that if they ap­pre­ci­ate the won­der, then they care about it, and that’s when it brings you to your other mis­sion – which is to make peo­ple in­ter­ested, then more likely to care and con­serve, and be­come ac­tive in sav­ing the planet,” he said.

At­ten­bor­ough said his doc­u­men­tary se­ries have al­ways car­ried a con­ser­va­tion­ist mes­sage in the fi­nal episode since the 1980s. Asked if there was also a es­capist el­e­ment, he said the new pro­grammes were too re­al­is­tic for that, but they would come as a re­lief for view­ers bom­barded with Brexit, Trump and other grim news.

“To find a pro­gramme that is about some­thing more fun­da­men­tal, more el­e­men­tal and also true is great,” he said. “It’s not an es­cape be­cause it is re­al­ity and has im­pli­ca­tions for our lives, but it’s a great change, a great re­lief from the po­lit­i­cal land­scape which oth­er­wise dom­i­nates our thoughts.”

‘I be­lieve we have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to make wildlife pro­grammes that look at all as­pects, and not just one’ Sir David At­ten­bor­ough


Tigers are one of the five species fol­lowed by Dy­nas­ties as they fight each other – and mankind – for space.

ABOVE A stand­ing ju­ve­nile painted wolf, whose jour­ney is charted from pup to four years old.

BELOWA baby chimp learns how to go ‘ter­mite fish­ing’ to pro­vide food in the dry sea­son.

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