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Nature's Great Events

Narrated by David Attenborough

Nature's Great Events

I 've been looking for reviews of David Attenborough nature documentaries. Detailed ones are difficult to find, not because editors think we aren't interested but because the consensus is too overwhelming to critique: Attenborough is magisterially profound. A national treasure on international treasures. He makes the kinds of programmes on which - how often have you heard this? - the BBC really should be spending the licence fee.

Nature's Great Events fits happily into this sequence. I couldn't find out whether the man himself had written the voiceover (the accompanying BBC book says only - and it's not much of a paraphrase - 'written by the writers'), but as usual it's wise enough not to interfere too much with the elegant high definition photography. This time we track some of the most significant seasonal changes on the planet, and their affect on the local wildlife. How does the polar bear cope when the ice melts? What does the lion do when the wildebeest follow the rains?

Disappointingly though, these questions and their answers have become rather mawkish. Death was once an essential part of understanding how the animal kingdom works. But these days the producers choose to focus on one struggling animal and threaten the viewer with the notion that it might die, as if death were a thing that could be overcome. This is allowable now, because the cause for those deaths might be human. Humans have melted too much of the polar bear's ice, and humans have made the Serengeti too warm. Therefore these deaths are not 'natural'. Such death has entered their world through human ecological sin. The climate change threats are barely veiled and offer no sign of redemption.

More natural are the rounds of F - the fighting, fleeing, feeding and, um, finding someone to whom one can display one's pinky bits. And because the programme has invited such sympathy for the animals in question, an identification with them is inevitable. Consequently when your eyes drift away from the screen you don't contemplate your own consciousness or conscience, or any of the feelings that we were once allowed to call 'higher', you feel decidedly bestial. Not red and clawed, exactly, but physical without the meta. As if there were nothing outside the earthly circle of life.
This is at odds with the sometimes overblown score, and Attenborough's tone has always confused those who understood it as worship in the face of creation rather than awe in the face of a self-regulating system. When he describes how the volcanic Mountain of God fertilises the plains that feed African antelope he does so with what sounds like reverence. But he has never found the deus in the mountainous machina, much to the chagrin of the creationists who send him hate mail telling him that he will burn in hell.

One hesitates to say it, but in a sense their fear is understandable. The trouble with Attenborough is that he's so modestly plausible. So meek. This gentle old man is a more persuasive atheist than the ranting hair-tuggers who publish books on the subject. He convinces not because he preaches, or because he brandishes his certainty, but because he is so unfailingly decent. That's just how we do it, isn't it?

Simon Jones