There is something intimate about night footage in wildlife documentaries. The play of shadows reminds us there are whole worlds of experience that our limited human senses overlook. And in the closing piece to camera of the BBC’s landmark natural history series Wild Isles this Easter Sunday evening, the effect lends its mystical quality to David Attenborough himself.
Perched beside the burrow of a Manx Shearwater seabird on Skomer off the Pembrokeshire coast, the presenter tells us of a great journey about to be made. “It is hesitating, and who can blame it,” he says of a chick about to take its first flight, ahead of a 6,000-mile migration across the ocean. “Come along, come along, come along,” he adds with gentle encouragement to the small, fragile creature. Then whispers a heartfelt “good luck!” as it takes off into the dark.
On one level, this interjection is simply another example of Attenborough’s long-standing and lightly worn empathy with the non-human world. But as the 96-year-old glows silver in the night vision, it is hard not to feel this is a different kind of farewell. One that foreshadows our own feelings about a national treasure at the end of his long career. And one that perhaps reflects his wish for us, his viewers, to share his love of nature and to act to save it before it’s too late: “Perhaps you could be the first to pass these wild isles on to the next generation in better shape than you inherited them,” his voiceover concludes.
“Good luck,” indeed. Yet will we heed his message? And is his approach to wildlife storytelling one we should carry with us past his end?
Attenborough, too, has been on a long journey. Until as late as 2006, climate change was not referenced in the presenter’s programmes. Nor did Blue Planet I (2001) make any mention of overfishing. Attenborough reasoned that engaging people with nature’s wonder is the first step in making them care. Others could push for specific policies of protection; he (and the BBC producers) didn’t want to preach.
That approach has now shifted. In keeping with his clarion calls in Climate Change – the Facts (2019) and A Life on Our Planet (2020), each episode of Wild Isles is started and finished with warnings of Britain’s dire ecological decline, and reminders about ongoing loss are woven throughout. Attenborough tells us that “in England, every river is polluted”, that Scotland’s ancient Caledonian Forest has shrivelled to just 1 per cent of what it used to be, and that climate change is reducing the very plankton on which the entire marine food chain depends.
There are even nods towards solutions. When a male cuttlefish is separated from his mate by an indiscriminately placed net, Attenborough laments: “Surely we shouldn’t put pots where they literally breed?” Delaying mowing until mid-July can allow wildflowers to seed, he advises. Beavers, a notorious emblem of tensions between farmers and conservationists, are celebrated as industrious builders of wetland “paradise”.
But although Wild Isles has come far in its prime-time acknowledgement of the eco-emergency, the addition of an extra episode, a sixth, Saving Our Wild Isles, has put the cat among the declining bird population. It shows that the presenter is prepared to go further still in departing from natural history’s traditional show-don’t-tell approach – even if BBC broadcast television is not.
Separately commissioned by the conservation charities RSPB, The National Trust and WWF, and then later acquired by the BBC for iPlayer only, this controversial additional film combines Attenborough’s narration with interviews from those tackling the crisis first-hand. From farmers who have adopted nature-friendly practices, to fishermen who set up England’s first “no-take” zone, humans are firmly back in the frame. Nature is a life-supporting web in which we impact every strand.
The film’s approach is still gentle; there is no mention of failing regulators or insufficient government policy. And there is still much it leaves out: bird flu was not mentioned in any episode. Yet an accompanying “Save our wild isles” campaign calls for a combined effort from individuals, businesses and political leaders. Plus its images are allowed to bite: instead of putting seabed destruction down to abstract “disturbance”, the practice is named as dredging and we’re shown jarring footage of the underwater dust-bowl that trawling creates.
The contrast with the main series is stark. As such, it will be interesting this weekend to see if the government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tweets about the extra episode quite as fulsomely as it has done the rest of the series: this, after all, is the same body that has overseen cuts to environmental protection, approved only three out of five planned highly protected marine areas, and temporarily lifted a ban on bee-harming pesticides.
When I asked why more solutions to the nature crisis weren’t featured in the original five episodes, I was told by a BBC spokesperson that “finding and discussing environmental solutions is not part of its remit” and that other shows, such as Paul Whitehouse on river pollution, would deal with this side of the story.
Without this fuller picture, however, the original Wild Isles series remains stranded at the enjoyable but limited status of “Britain-is-brilliant propaganda”, as the New Statesman‘s TV critic Rachel Cooke put it. Instead, as Saving Our Wild Isles demonstrates so well, the brilliance of British nature is inseparable from the community of conservationists, scientists, campaigners and nature-lovers who champion its protection so hard.
“This starts and ends with us,” Attenborough says in the opening to the iPlayer-only film. In doing so, the presenter has set a standard for natural history filmmaking that befits our growing ecological threat. So now should the BBC’s in-house natural history unit.