Credit where it’s due

When Old Bunyard was Young Bunyard, Britain still had a shared culture; and that shared culture was mostly sustained from week to week by television. Whether at school, university or work, it was unusual to turn up in the morning and not by greeted with the question, “Did you see last night’s Monty Python?” or whatever it was, followed by a group re-enactment of the best bits. The beginning of the end was the great media fragmentation of the 1990s, whereby the four TV channels became several, then dozens, then hundreds, and people simply stopped watching the same things. Yet there has been a welcome return in recent weeks with ‘Planet Earth II’, the natural-history series that finished last week, having grabbed the nation’s attention like little else in years. Though the BBC comes in for vast amounts of criticism on account of its sex scandals, overpaid executives, political bias, etc, it will always have a place in the nation’s heart as long as David Attenborough remains on its payroll.

Now, I have to sound a bit curmudgeonly in admitting that, with the exception of the outstanding last episode on wildlife in cities, I found this series far less interesting content-wise than Attenborough’s much earlier masterpiece, ‘Life On Earth’. Obviously the photography is vastly superior nowadays, but the scientific content is trivial by comparison, either on account of the BBC’s modern preference for populist dumbing down, or because all the good material has been used up; the sequence on leaf-cutter ants added nothing at all to two such sequences I’ve seen in previous documentaries, and the penguin colony and desert lizard pieces were similarly old hat. In fact, aside from the dramatic pursuit of infant marine iguanas by racer snakes, I can remember nothing from the first five episodes that matched cinematic appeal with education. (The sixth episode was another matter).

I am nevertheless indebted to the BBC for one graphic sequence. It concerned a herd of Nubian ibex living on a nearly sheer rock-face, where they risk at every moment a fatal plunge to the jaws of waiting predators. But for the fact that the real-life predator in the documentary was vulpine rather than lupine, the sight was exactly as I’d envisaged the 87th Fable, ‘The Fanciful Wolf’. This Fable deals with Confabulation, a process whereby our mind seamlessly (though often erroneously) fills in gaps whenever our sensory narrative is interrupted. In this case, the wolf is fooled by the fact that one ibex leaps away while his attention is distracted, but another simultaneously appears higher up, leading him to infer that the ibex has leapt vertically up the rock-face. I feared that readers might find the scene hard to picture, or the action hard to believe; yet the sight of these real-life creatures prancing around fast and effortlessly as if in defiance of gravity lives on so vividly in the public imagination that both fears have been dispelled. So thank you, BBC: that’s one credit to put on the balance sheet.

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