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Will Gompertz reviews Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet, on Netflix ★★★★☆

Will Gompertz
Arts editor
@WillGompertzBBCon Twitter


If there is an art to sugaring the pill, then Netflix and the production team at Silverback Films have perfected it with their 8x1-hour natural history TV series, Our Planet.

The world might be going to hell in a handcart as wildlife populations plummet, rain forests are decimated, and for the first time in human history we are told the "stability of nature can no longer be taken for granted". But somehow it doesn't seem so awful or imminent when one of the greatest broadcasters who has ever lived is giving you the bad news.

Having the warm, intelligent, measured voice of Sir David Attenborough repeatedly stating that man's reckless approach to managing Earth's delicate resources is putting it, and therefore our, very existence in grave danger, is a bit like Dr Doug Ross giving you a terminal diagnosis in ER: you don't really hear him because it's GEORGE CLOONEY.

And, so it is with Our Planet.

Sir David is emphatic and uncompromising in his assessment of the state of the natural world.

We have ruined it, basically.

Our rapaciousness aligned to industrial-scale destruction and over-population has put us on the brink of an ecological disaster from which there will be no return.

"What we do in the next 20 years will determine the future for all life on Earth", he warns.

image copyrightSilverback/Netflix
image captionAlbatross parent feeding its chick on Bird Island, South Georgia, where numbers have declined by 40%

It is a stark and important message but it never really lands in the way it is intended. It comes across more as "Oh, and by the way", as opposed to "We're all doomed". And that is because, when all is said and done, this is a classic Attenborough-narrated series full of his inherent optimism and love of the natural world in all its resilient, adaptable, magnificent glory.

To be shown orangutans' habitat mercilessly eroded by the commercial exploitation of palm oil plants is awful, but soon forgotten when you watch mother teach son how to fillet a dead tree for ants.

It is a narrative paradox that runs through Our Planet. However dire Sir David's warnings, they are always overshadowed by his enthusiasm to show us one more piece of amazing never-seen-before footage filmed deep inside the animal kingdom.

image copyrightSilverback/Netflix
image captionThis orangutan uses a stick tool to winkle out ants from a tree hole, and is part of a long-term study into these apes in Sumatra

This is what he is best at, and when this series is at its best.

The highly experienced production team who have Blue Planet and Frozen Planet among their credits, have delivered some stunning, unforgettable sequences, such as the mating ritual of a twerking Red-capped manakin bird, or, better still, those of a male western parotia.

image copyrightSilverback/Netflix
image captionWestern parotia bird of paradise; here the female looks down from her perch at the displaying male
image copyrightSilverback/Netflix
image captionCameraman Doug Anderson waits by a Callipterus shell pile, and starts the camera recording by pulling on a piece of string attached to the trigger in Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania

From tip-toeing Flamingos to ancient worms with inbuilt glue-guns, Our Planet gives us some of the most dazzling images you are ever likely to view on TV. When necessary, they are embellished with Attenborough's commentary, which is never obtrusive and always written with brevity and wit.

He doesn't do pomposity; his style is more down to planet Earth.

If there is an everyday allusion needed to make the exotic images we are seeing feel more relatable, he generally has one to hand. Cormorants "carpet bomb" a shoal of fish, courting birds dance around each other as if on Strictly, and a bat has gone "into business" with a plant in a mutually beneficial enterprise.

image copyrightSilverback/Netflix
image captionCormorants and boobies plunge dive into shoals of anchovies in Punta San Juan, Peru

An eyebrow or two was raised when Netflix announced it had signed Attenborough to narrate the series.

After all, he is one of the BBC's most treasured talents with global recognition and an almost unique ability to reach audiences of all ages and types.

image captionDavid Attenborough with sea lions on South Georgia Island in 2005, for the BBC's The Living Planet: The Frozen World

Hence the streaming giant's interest in him, of course.

Frankly, by and large, you wouldn't know the difference. It is like a car manufacturer re-badging a model for another market: same product, different idents.

I do wonder, though, if the experienced exec producers at BBC would have sharpened up the first episode a little. Its job is to be a scene-setter for the more editorially focused programmes that follow, but it feels slightly tentative and tends to jump about like a young Philippine eagle preparing to embark on its first flight.

image copyrightSilverback/Netflix
image captionThe Philippine eagle is one of the largest birds of prey in the world, but there are thought to be only 400 pairs remaining

It is also possible there was another, perhaps more effective way, to make the very serious points about what the programme-makers think needs to be done to save our world from disaster. I know David Attenborough is not one to finger-wag, but maybe there was scope to make a single, no-holds-barred wake-up call episode with every last grain of sugar removed from the bitter pill.

But these are moot points about a world-class television series made available in its entirety to the world on Friday.

It has been created by masters of their craft with an exceptional narrator (though it's instructive to note that Attenborough doesn't entirely traverse all cultural borders - the Spanish version is voiced by Penelope Cruz and Salma Hayek narrates for Latin America).

It is the voice of a man who knows he won't be around forever but hopes passionately that Our Planet will.

image copyrightNetflix
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Related Topics

  • Netflix
  • Nature
  • Television
  • David Attenborough