Life On Earth

As I said at the end of my The Ascent of Man review, the next documentary series I wanted to watch was this one. Well, I blazed through it, enjoying every minute of the thirteen episodes.

As with The Ascent of Man, it is the narrator, Sir Dave, who makes the series what it is, no one can tell the facts like him (except for Jacob Bronowski of course). And Sir Dave does it all from scuba diving, spelunking, walking into a shallow pond getting his shoes and trousers wet, sitting incredibly close behind a rattlesnake, and all manner of other tasks to explain to us the story of nature.

The most enjoyable scene was to see him in a mountain forest in Rwanda, lying down next to a large female gorilla with it’s child gorilla practically lying on top of him, and he had a huge grin on his face. From Wikipedia:

The best remembered sequence occurs in the twelfth episode, when Attenborough encounters a group of mountain gorillas in Dian Fossey’s sanctuary in Rwanda. The primates had become used to humans through years of being studied by researchers. Attenborough originally intended merely to get close enough to narrate a piece about the apes’ use of the opposable thumb, but as he advanced on all fours toward the area where they were feeding, he suddenly found himself face to face with an adult female. Discarding his scripted speech, he turned to camera and delivered a whispered ad lib:

There is more meaning and mutual understanding in exchanging a glance with a gorilla than with any other animal I know. Their sight, their hearing, their sense of smell are so similar to ours that they see the world in much the same way as we do. We live in the same sort of social groups with largely permanent family relationships. They walk around on the ground as we do, though they are immensely more powerful than we are. So if there were ever a possibility of escaping the human condition and living imaginatively in another creature’s world, it must be with the gorilla. The male is an enormously powerful creature but he only uses his strength when he is protecting his family and it is very rare that there is violence within the group. So it seems really very unfair that man should have chosen the gorilla to symbolise everything that is aggressive and violent, when that is the one thing that the gorilla is not—and that we are.

When Attenborough returned to the site the next day, the female and two young gorillas began to groom and play with him. In his memoirs, Attenborough describes this as “one of the most exciting encounters of my life”. He subsequently discovered, to his chagrin, that only a few seconds had been recorded: the cameraman was running low on film and wanted to save it for the planned description of the opposable thumb.

And another example of Sir Dave’s bravery was a shot of him in a large plaza, it looked to be St Mark’s Square in Venice. The camera was set up quite some distance away high-up in a building. It started off with a medium close-up as he talked about modern man with a huge crowd of tourists casually wandering around him, doing what homo sapiens usually do on their day off and giving him quizzical looks. Then the camera pulled back quite a way so that we could see he was quite alone with no film crew around him, so seemingly talking to himself like a nutjob, not something I could do. To Sir Dave we are all animals too, worthy of observation in our natural habitat.

One of the most fascinating things I learned is that the whales evolved from a land-based mammal similar to a shrew, but over time it decided the sea was a good place to be, so lost it’s rear legs, gained a tail, got a whole lot bigger, and started munching on krill, amongst other changes. Makes you wonder what we will look like in several million years, although I doubt we will last that long. Actually, I hope we don’t last that long, the other animals that have lived on this planet, such as the dinosaurs, have behaved responsibly, and the animals that currently share the planet with us are getting a bad deal.

The filming techniques in this were obviously very tricky, and very well done. The cameramen also must have spent a lot of time getting the shot they wanted. From Wikipedia again:

One cameraman spent hundreds of hours waiting for the fleeting moment when a rare frog, which incubates its young in its mouth, finally spat them out.

If there is one criticism though it would be one aspect of the sound. Overall it was good, but at times it was clearly a Foley adding in the sounds post production. The sound of a monkey munching on a plant for example sounded a lot like a person munching on a celery stick in a studio. Of course this was probably the only choice they had, getting the sound of these things happening in a happening forest with all of the other sounds around was probably a tricky thing with 1979 sound-recording technology, so I can forgive it for that. Mostly though the sound was done on location.

After watching this I have a whole lot more respect for animals and natural scientific research, but most of all for Sir Dave who is a top television producer and narrator, as well as an excellent spokesperson for animal and plant-kind. He is 92 now, but is still working in television and writing books. Tonight I ordered a book of his from Amazon called “Life of Birds” which I am looking forward to reading.

I of course will add him to the MBMS Page of Fame, with highest honours.

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