x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Life

The BBC, with the always reliable David Attenborough on board, captures in technologically advanced glory the natural world's 'endless struggle to survive'.

A sailfish sets his sights on a shoal of fish in the first episode of the BBC's Life, which has been released on DVD as a four-disc box set.
A sailfish sets his sights on a shoal of fish in the first episode of the BBC's Life, which has been released on DVD as a four-disc box set.


When confronted by a predator - say, a giant tarantula looking for lunch - the Venezuelan pebble toad has perfected a unique defence mechanism. Tensing every muscle in its body, the toad curls into a ball and hurls itself off the nearest cliff. The amphibian is so tiny that the fall causes no damage, allowing it to eventually roll to a halt far from danger.

Avoiding hungry arachnids is one thing, but escaping Sir David Attenborough is quite another. From the moment the first hairy spider leg creeps out from behind a rock, to the precipitous fall and the final splashdown in a handy puddle, Sir David and his camera team are there, giving us a ringside view of the greatest escape act since Harry Houdini. Life, broadcast last year as a 10-part series for the BBC, is now released as four-disc DVD box set. The old boy has been at it for so long now that one can almost imagine him crouched over the primeval soup, breathlessly commentating as the first blob of cells wiggles into existence.

In fact, it's been six decades since Attenborough - back then a fresh-faced Cambridge graduate with a degree in natural sciences - entered the fledgling world of wildlife programming as a young producer on a documentary about the coelacanth, the so-called living fossil, dredged from the depths of the Indian Ocean. Fifty-eight years later - and jokes about "living fossils" aside - Attenborough, now 83, is back with Life. The grainy black and white flickering footage of TV's early days has been supplanted by wide-screen high-definition colour, but the audience sell is exactly the same, the wonders of the natural world captured in a way that only the most intrepid and persistent explorer could hope to witness.

Previous series have included The Blue Planet and Planet Earth, the latter described as "the most expensive documentary ever made". Life is billed as the "endless struggle to survive", but, as with all Attenborough documentaries, its viewers aren't really studying the the tag line. They are too busy gazing, slack-jawed, at the wildlife in their living room. The Venezuelan pebble toad features in the second episode of Life, which is devoted to reptiles and amphibians. Oreophrynella niger lives on a remote tabletop plateau in the Guinea highlands and took a week just to track down.

In the same episode, a thuggish gang of Komodo dragons stalk a water buffalo they have already poisoned with a venomous bite. When it finally collapses, they tear the still-living animal to pieces. The whole process takes three weeks. Wildlife footage of this quality requires both infinite patience and a substantial budget. Life is said to have cost £10 million (Dh58.3m), but the number of man hours involved must have run close. For the plants segment, six months of seasonal change in a Devon wood was condensed into little more than a minute of screen time.

In "Mammals", the crew captured, for the first time, the humpback whale "heat run", where 40-tonne males battle it out off an island in the Pacific for the right to get first pick of the females. Part of the sequence involved a cameraman holding his breath underwater because the noise from the scuba tanks would have disturbed the animals. The technology and tricks involved are so astonishing that the last 10 minutes of every episode is devoted to a "how we did it" explanation. Long gone is the photographer crouched in rickety twig-covered canvas hide. Gyroscopically stabilised cameras that can track any situation without jumping or vibrating were used throughout, mounted, in one instance, on a balloon floating among 10 million migrating fruit bats.

Slow-motion sequences involved an ultra-high-speed camera that begins recording slightly when the trigger is pulled, effectively allowing the cameraman to see into the future. This is quite useful when your subject is the basilisk lizard, which runs across the surface of water at the human equivalent of 105km/h. If there is a downside, it is that some scenes almost have a studio feel to them. You begin to wonder if CGI was involved or if the animals were actually in a zoo enclosure. The BBC got its fingers burned a few years ago when it was revealed that an African python had been filmed in a Dorset pet shop.

This time, the network has been completely up-front. Only a couple of sequences in Life used captive animals and only because filming them in the wild would have put them at risk. And, as ever, Attenborough is always the real deal. @Email:jlangton@thenational.ae