IT IS A TRUTH universally acknowledged that the BBC is especially good at creating superior factual documentaries. Across the decades, a seemingly endless procession of gesticulating men (these programmes are almost always fronted by men) have popped up on our screens, each probing their chosen field of interest with engaging acuity.
The grand poohbah of them all, of course, is Sir David Attenborough, whose rightful reputation as the greatest natural history guide in television history is likely never to be challenged. What else is there to say about this peerless broadcaster that hasn't already been said? I have on rare occasion read tiresome articles stating that Attenborough is an undeserving sacred cow, an overrated, boring old relic who should've been put out to pasture years ago. But these writers are idiots, hacks, professional contrarians with no more right to an opinion than a mollusc does to a six-figure book deal. Even when he is merely narrating, David Attenborough is quite brilliant at what he does, and I defy anyone to refute that and really mean it.
His latest series, Nature's Great Events, which came to an end last night, was quite simply wonderful television. Visually stunning, immersive and mesmerising, it examined some of the most dramatic wildlife spectacles on Earth with characteristic verve and insight.
The final episode charted a year in the life of the creatures living in and around the northern coastal waters of Alaska and British Columbia. The coming of summer sparks an epic growth of plankton, the basis for all life in the area, from tiny fish to mighty whale. As the waters grew warmer, we saw shoals of herring releasing their sperm in "vast milky clouds", leaving the seabed coated with around 800 billion eggs and turning hundreds of miles of coastline white.
Similarly eye-catching was the sight of a pack of humpback whales indulging in some "bubble net fishing", a remarkably intelligent, regimented form of hunting in which fish are ensnared in a torrent of bubbles from their blow holes. Apparently, only about 100 humpbacks have learned how to fish this way.
Another fantastic sequence featured a flock of seabirds corralling a hapless shoal of fish into a "bait ball", climaxing with a humpback whale lunging unexpectedly into view and devouring it all with one gulp. It was the sort of startling image – captured by a hugely gifted camera crew – that defines the best of Attenborough's work.
And has television ever boasted a finer narrator? That wonderful voice, warm, reassuring, yet quietly emphatic, is one of TV's most magical tools. Attenborough could read anything – a petrol-station receipt, a detailed synopsis of the film Breakdance 2: Electric Boogaloo, even The Time Traveller's Wife – and it would still sound fascinating. Longer may he reign.
Art critic Waldemar Januszczak, host of Baroque! From St Peter's to St Paul's, is another TV natural. He may bear a disconcerting physical resemblance to Doctor Fox, but he's a funny, engaging, enthusiastic and informative guide – basically everything you'd want from a man telling you things on BBC4.
The mad, bloody, melodramatic Baroque movement is a sprawling subject, but Januszczak makes it accessible without patronising the viewer. His journey last night took him from Velzquez in Spain ("the Spanish Baroque was hardcore") to Rubens ("the bigger woman rang his bell and squeezed his pips") in Holland. It made me want to investigate their work further, surely the point of superb documentaries such as this.