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
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.