BBC wildlife documentaries are just a chance to tell us all off

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

2 November 2019

9:00 AM

Older readers may remember a time when landmark BBC wildlife documentary series were joyous celebrations of the miraculous fecundity of the planet we’re lucky enough to find ourselves living on. Well, not any longer. In our more censorious age, they’ve become another chance to essentially tell us all off.

So it was that Seven Worlds, One Planet (BBC1, Sunday) began with Sir David Attenborough presenting the usual highlights package of the wonders to come, with each episode focusing on a different continent. But then he put on his special serious voice to add the dark warning that ‘This may be the most critical moment for life on Earth since the continents formed.’ (Quite a long time, I think you’ll agree.)

Still, as introductions go, this one can’t be accused of being deceptive — because pretty much every scene from then on was interspersed with similar prophecies of the apocalypse to come.

Of course, pretty much every scene was also unforgettable (except for a nagging sense that we might have seen something very like it in a previous Attenborough series, but forgotten). In this first episode, set in the Antarctic, bull elephant seals duly smashed into each other to dramatic music, baby penguins toddled around to comic music and seal pups shivered on the ice to sad music. There was a particularly astonishing underwater battle between a huge jellyfish and a group of tiny sea anemones (spoiler alert: the anemones won). Yet, whenever our spirits threatened to rise at the magic of it all, Attenborough was soon on hand to depress them again with a reminder that ‘the wildlife here faces an uncertain future’ or that the survival technique we’d just witnessed ‘is becoming harder because of climate change’.

By the end, the effect was to make such reminders feel like the (fairly high) price of admission for being allowed to see what we saw. It also made Attenborough himself seem like that endlessly gloomy character in The Pickwick Papers known as ‘the dismal man’, who can’t take a walk on a beautiful morning without reflecting that ‘Ah! people need to rise early, to see the sun in all his splendour, for his brightness seldom lasts the day through. The morning of day and the morning of life are but too much alike.’

And on Sunday, the programme’s commitment to misery even extended to the bit at the end about how it was filmed. Instead of getting the usual tribute to human courage and ingenuity, we watched a cameraman softly weeping about all that we’ve done to the Earth.

In fact, Seven Worlds, One Planet could easily have had the same title as a new BBC2 drama. Guilt, which started the week before on BBC Scotland, stars Mark Bonnar and Jamie Sives as two carefully differentiated brothers: Max, a high-flying Edinburgh lawyer who lives in some grandeur, and Jake, the owner of a vinyl record shop who doesn’t. Returning home from a wedding one night, they run over and kill an old man — the trouble being that, despite what his drunken brother had told him, Jake wasn’t insured to drive Max’s car. For reasons that are just about logical enough at the time, they carry the conveniently unmarked corpse into the man’s conveniently unlocked house, deposit him on an armchair in front of the telly and make what they think will be their final escape.

Unfortunately, Jake leaves his wallet behind at the scene and has to pretend he knew the guy so as to pick it up at the wake. There he meets and understandably falls for the dead man’s American niece, a kindly dreamboat with a deep knowledge of rock history — but also with her doubts about whether her uncle did actually die of natural causes. And then… well, a bunch of other stuff happens that leaves the brothers facing episode two with some trepidation.

Guilt is billed as a comedy drama — and, in a rare twist, is indeed both dramatic and funny (even if Bonnar unexpectedly overdoes the comedy gurning). Nonetheless, what really marks it out is that it doesn’t abide by any customary TV rules or formulas, with writer Neil Forsyth apparently just following his idiosyncratic muse wherever it leads.

Finally, a quick mention for the terrific sitcom-and-a-bit-more-besides Defending the Guilty, which the BBC has recently announced will be commissioned for a second series. The tale of a group of trainee barristers, the series mixes — or rather, seamlessly blends — plenty of great gags and some extremely neat plotting with a surprisingly thoughtful exploration of the limits of idealism in today’s legal system. It also confirms Will Sharpe — currently playing a very different character with equal aplomb in Giri/Haji — as an actor of considerable talent. If you haven’t seen the show yet, it’s well worth a catch-up on iPlayer.

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