The Green Planet
Enter the Triffid. This long-nosed robot camera, like a metal anteater, is manoeuvred with a video game handset. And working the controller amid a field of sunflowers is Sir David Attenborough.
The 95-year-old doesn’t wrestle with the joystick for long. He’s as flummoxed as a grandfather with a PlayStation, being trounced at a bout of Grand Theft Auto by a teenager.
Within a few seconds, the world’s greatest living broadcaster has steered the wrong way and the mechanism is nose-diving. Game over.
But he isn’t fazed. Sir David, born in 1926 and just over two weeks younger than the Queen, is plainly delighted to be back doing what he does with incomparable aplomb – explaining the natural world to TV viewers, from some of the most extraordinary locations on Earth.
Sir David Attenborough, born in 1926 and just over two weeks younger than the Queen, is plainly delighted to be back doing what he does with incomparable aplomb – explaining the natural world to TV viewers, from some of the most extraordinary locations on Earth
The Green Planet (BBC1) opened with him high in the canopy of Costa Rica’s tropical rainforest, in Central America. Perched on a slatted wooden seat, in a green metal basket trundling along a zipline, he chatted cheerfully over his shoulder.
Vertigo doesn’t trouble him. We’ve seen him talking to camera while abseiling down trees, after all, and Planet Earth II in 2016 began with him in a hot air balloon over the Swiss Alps.
He seems equally unbothered by the humidity, the melting heat, or the jetlag. Costa Rica is an 11-hour flight from London, but Sir David is irrepressibly chirpy, as if he has just taken a stroll to the end of his garden.
Waiting in darkness and patient silence, beside a curious blossom called the seven-hour flower, he talks to us with a note of wonder.
‘They open at about six o’clock and each one only lasts a night, and then it dies,’ he says, in that unmistakable, urgent murmur.
‘During that time it provides food for one particular animal – and here it is.’
He beams like a child as an Underwood’s bat swoops past his nose to drink the nectar, and then he lets out a joyous chuckle.
Flower of the parasitic plant Rafflesia (Rafflesia keithii), the corpse flower, Borneo (pictured). It lies dormant as a bud for five years, then flowers for a day
The last time I was fortunate enough to sit down with him for a face-to-face interview, a month before the pandemic hit Britain in 2020, he declared stoically that his days of hopping between continents were over.
Despite expeditions from Canada to Australia in his 80s and 90s, and even to both the North and South Poles for Frozen Planet in 2010, he assured me that he would go no further afield than Europe in future.
He must have changed his mind. The Green Planet sees him venture back to the Arctic and to the deserts of the US as well as to California and the rainforests.
His enthusiasm never ebbs, and this time it is the Triffid that has him grinning with excitement. Designed by an American, former military engineer Chris Field, this elaborate rig captures sequences that seemed impossible until now.
Not only does it produce pin-sharp time-lapse sequences to show plants growing at a thousand times their real speed, but it performs complex, pre-programmed moves as it does so.
The result is a constantly changing perspective. It’s as thrilling as footage of a high-speed chase on the African savannah, with a Land Rover bumping along beside a hunting lion.
To demonstrate the technology, the opening sequence showed us mud parching and cracking. The camera plunged into a crevasse barely an inch wide, and halted to observe a seedling break through the surface.
Then we took flight over a bed of leaves that seemed as big as mountains, rotting in front of our eyes. These pictures leave the mind reeling – if they were CGI images from the latest Lord Of The Rings, they’d be impressive enough, but this is the real world.
One of the plants, a ‘corpse flower’, or titan arum, in Borneo, might be more at home in Tolkien’s Middle Earth. It lies dormant as a bud for five years, then flowers for a day.
The blossom has whiskers and teeth-like petals, it’s the colour of congealed blood, and it stinks like a dead animal.
Carrion flies, intoxicated by the smell, come to lay their eggs and take away the snot-like pollen.
Camera operator Oliver Mueller programmes a specially built robotic camera system, known as the Triffid, to follow a trail of leaf cutter ants
Even this monstrosity, filmed in constant motion by the Triffid, takes on a curious beauty.
Sir David has said for decades that constant innovations in TV tech fuel his desire to keep making fresh series, each one a landmark of wildlife documentary making.
He began his career shooting in colour in Africa and the Pacific islands, at a time when the BBC could broadcast only in black-and-white.
Every few years brought another breakthrough – it’s only a dozen years, for instance, since Steadicams under helicopters allowed rock-solid aerial shots… and then drone cameras were developed that made an eye-in-the-sky possible on even the lowest telly budget.
It was Sir David’s series The Private Life Of Plants, a passion project of his, that first introduced viewers to the marvels of stop-motion photography back in 1995.
The Green Planet goes far beyond anything he imagined possible then. ‘This new groundbreaking technology,’ he says, ‘enables us to enter the extraordinary world of plants, and see their lives from their perspective.’
To see life from Sir David’s gleeful, erudite, joyfully boyish perspective is a privilege.