The other night, just before we put out the lights, I decided to dazzle T with some facts. When orcas are hunting and do not wish to be seen, I said, they swim on their sides, the better to hide their dorsal fins.
At this, his silence was perhaps a bit discouraging. But I wasn’t to be put off. Did he know that seals can sleep in open water? Or that puffins mate for life?
I went on to describe in elaborate detail a scenario in which a dormouse left its home in an oak tree in search of honeysuckle nectar, only to encounter a hungry tawny owl. “What happened?” he finally asked. Having paused for dramatic effect, I then explained that dormice are able to remain entirely motionless for up to an hour, a tactic that saved this one’s life.
I’m sure many people have been through this: the almost childlike relish for animal facts brought on by a new David Attenborough series. But in the case of Wild Isles, the feeling is even more extreme than usual; it is a sensation close to a form of evangelism. The writer Jonathan Meades once told me that it was ridiculous to be proud of a place – I may have been droning on about Yorkshire – and intellectually, I understood what he meant. Nevertheless, such a thing, love and loyalty blooming into chauvinism, can be difficult to fight.
As the BBC’s cameras roam from Shetland to Cornwall to Northern Ireland to Norfolk – this series never leaves our shores – excitement rises irresistibly inside you. “I live here!” you think. In this astonishing place, where there are badgers and bluebells and barnacle geese! Suddenly, not even the wretched weather seems to matter.
Think of it as respite. A national treasure declaims from the White Cliffs of Dover, and if thoughts of Suella Braverman do occur, they’re mercifully fleeting. Wild Isles may come with warnings about climate change, threatened habitats and declining species. But the heart never sinks too far, and most of the time it soars, like a kingfisher along a river (another fact: kingfishers fly at 30mph, and eat their bodyweight in fish every day).
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These films are beautiful, extraordinary, wonder-inducing. In one sequence, filmed in Islay, Scotland, a white-tailed eagle holds a barnacle goose in its talons. The goose is fat: as heavy, you imagine, as an old feather pillow. Black wings flap. It’s like watching a dog fight in an old war movie. (One with Attenborough’s brother, Dickie, in it, perhaps.)
In the last 15 minutes, we’re taken, as is increasingly customary, behind the scenes to learn how the footage at which we’ve been gaping was caught. The orca sequence took two years. Finding a pod of killer whales is like looking for a needle in a haystack. These beasts swim fast, travelling 100 miles in a day; Shetland’s coastline is more than 2,000 km long.
But in the end, however much we admire the film-makers’ skills and persistence, it’s nature that triumphs in the imagination, the orca stalking an inlet for a baby seal it will kill by drowning that we remember. Below water, it was as eerie and as menacing as a submarine. Seen from above, it was elegant, almost eel-like.
Attenborough’s voice, though huskier now, retains a youthfulness born of his enthusiasm, even of his passion. But we’ve grown up with him, and we must be prepared for the day when he is no longer with us.
No one my age could fail to be stirred by the sight of him sitting companionably beside puffins in Wales. They were the first birds we ever loved, thanks to Kaye Webb and her brilliant paperbacks.
One more fact: puffin couples return to the same burrow every year to have their pufflings. Surveying a colony, you notice that the ground is cratered all over, like the surface of the moon – and when they jump in and out of their homes, you think (again, if you’re my age) of The Clangers.
And thus, a kind of circle, BBC-wise, is closed. All our lives it has brought us marvellous creatures, whether imaginary or real, and we’re so grateful. If the Tories had any sense at all they’d stop their Beeb-bashing and deploy Wild Isles in their jingoistic, Britain-is-brilliant propaganda instead.
BBC One, 12 March, 7pm
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Iraq Catastrophe