Aidan Smith: David Attenborough's Dynasties is mawkish and overcooked
Halfway through Sir David Attenborough’s last series I thought we didn’t love him enough. Blue Planet II won a monster audience but it seemed we were getting complacent and beginning to take these seminal, sensory-overload blockbusters for granted.
I didn’t end up writing that piece in praise of him but wish I had because now I find myself cooling on these animal epics. I mean, Attenborough is still a national treasure. He’s still grandad to us all. He’s still the greater pale-blue-shirted warbler on the subject of the natural world. And he’s still the grumpy fellow I interviewed a few years ago, harrumphing at a perfectly innocent enquiry about his thespian brother Dickie. The problem is with his current show, Dynasties.
The problem might just be mine. You lot seem to love Dynasties, crying yourselves to sleep every Sunday night at the heart-rending tales from the Arctic tundra and the savanna wilderness. Me, I think I might be turning in a cynic with a hide as tough as that of the exceedingly fat-bottomed hippo which this week refused to become lunch for a ravenous lion.
Lions were the focus of the latest programme which was interesting for turning the whole kings-of-the-jungle legend on its head and showing a Masai Mara lioness with a ten-strong pride at risk from hyenas and farmers who lay down poison. But it told its story like televised drama.
You knew when the cubs were under threat because suddenly there would be a blast of mawkish muzak. If I was a cub I might prefer to take my chances with the hyenas rather than the overbearing and over-sentimental BBC soundtrack department. But I am not a cub and lions are not humans.
More and more, though, nature shows are resembling dramas in their construction, and especially the soapier kind. Dramas must contain a sufficient amount of sex and death, laughter and tears. The narrative must toy with our emotions with a carefully-controlled ebb and flow. All of this is scripted; it has to be. Dramas are heightened reality because reality in its unvarnished state can be supremely dull. My life is tedious and I bet yours is even worse. But nature shows are supposed to be factual.
Watching the most recent episode of Dynasties and the moments of face-licking tenderness within the pride, I couldn’t help wondering if these happened right on cue, or whether the film was re-ordered later in the editing suite to induce the desired collective tingle in the audience. I know what you’re thinking: “What a ridiculous way to spend Sunday night!” Well, there’s an unfortunate history of nature programmes bending reality with polar bears in Dutch zoos standing in for the Arctic version and semi-domesticated wolves body-doubling for wild ones.
Then there was the baby iguana vs racer snake outrage from Planet Earth II. This incredible chase sequence won a Bafta and was viewed by comedienne Ellen Degeneres as a symbol of hope after a racer snake got into the White House. “This baby iguana is all of us,” she tweeted. But then the producers admitted the scene had been stitched together from different bits of footage, adding: “Snakes and iguanas aren’t very good at ‘takes’.”
So was this really an outrage - a “fakery storm”, in the words of one Beeb-bashing newspaper? Did you feel cheated? Perhaps not, and maybe you went away from that series with a greater understanding and appreciation of the animal world. But I repeat: animals are not humans.
More and more of us are performers, even if we’re not proper actors, for it can seem like we’re all queuing up backstage at a reality show to be asked formatted questions by Dermot O’Leary which never change and are specifically intended to make us cry. Animals shouldn’t have to follow scripts. I mean, it’s not as if they’re performing seals (unless of course they already are).
Ah yes, there’s been a lot of blubbing over Dynasties. On Sunday the lioness was forced to leave behind a sick cub for the sake of the rest of the pride. The previous week Emperor penguins in Antarctica were blown into an icy ravine and when a chick couldn’t climb out it was left by its mother, seemingly to perish - until the film crew decided to dig steps in the gully walls.
Maybe you cried at these scenes accompanied by Attenborough’s tremulous, portentous delivery - or maybe you cried when the production team cried at the end of both episodes. The intervention in Antarctica has been much-debated - shouldn’t nature be allowed to take it course, however grim? - but personally I’m more bothered by the intervention of the cameramen during the last ten minutes of nature programmes to tell us how they got all the shots. There’s great skill involved, I don’t doubt that, and the best will be rewarded when the telly awards are handed out. But there’s skill in all technical work and, for instance, we never heard from the cameraman on Bodyguard who could have reasonably claimed: “How I made British politics more interesting and got you all lusting after the Home Secretary.”
The BBC, of course, likes to blow its own trumpet. These inserts are also evidence that everyone’s a star these days or thinks they are. Even cameramen are playing to the camera. But maybe the problem with Dynasties is that it was designed as a smaller work compared with the Blue Planets and Planet Earths and, impatient for the next super-series, the Beeb have overcooked it.
There’s a more sizable problem to come for the Corporation, however: that super-series will be on Netflix. The big beast of animal TV is reaching for the higher, more luscious branches where the rewards are greater. That’s simply nature.