Galapagos: Forces of Change

13/10/06, BBC 2 9pm
3 million, 13.6% Audience Share

Here's an interesting review not only of Galapagos, but also of the BBC Natural History Unit.

The origin of a new species?: Television
The Sunday Times - 15/10/2006

Mother nature can be a cruel and spiteful old mama. Come with me, let us look at the strange and complex gestation of the natural history film. Its first mating rituals happen in secluded offices, often in Bristol; nobody knows why nature films chose Bristol for their colony. The film-makers are dull, socially inept, secretive little creatures. Their mating rituals take place across continents, finding partners from the National Geographic and Discovery channels; their displays involve the waving of money. Then, years later, after unimaginable hardship, danger, boredom and unwashed underpants, miles and miles of incoherent film are born. The young are called rushes; they stay close to their parents, the film-makers, who make the perilous journey back to Bristol, where the young slowly grow into full-size films. There they live for a brief moment of flashy life, flitting across the screen in your living room, before disappearing for ever.
A few will live on in ancient repeats on the unvisited reaches of the Sky box and the too-frightened-to-sleep entertainment selection on British Airways.

Natural history documentaries are some of the most popular creatures on television, and, paradoxically, as real nature hurtles to extinction, so natural history films prosper and flourish. Naturalists have predicted that in the event of a global nuclear catastrophe, the only inhabitants left on earth would be cockroaches and a documentary crew making a film about cockroaches. Bearing in mind the unspeakable misery, filth, disgusting food, rudimentary dens and risible pay that must have been endured by Paul and Richard, the cameramen of Galapagos (Friday, BBC2), I think we should all share a moment's silence of commiseration because of what their rushes finally grew up to be. Galapagos is one of the most beautiful, strikingly shot nature films I've ever seen, in the finest tradition of Bristol and the BBC Natural History Unit. But they've put a voice-over on, emoted by Tilda Swinton ("spoken" would be too small and brown a word for what she does with her voice).

Now, we're used to people with funny accents talking about nature: the immortal Jacques Cousteau, Armand and Michaela Denis, the high-pitched whining of Bill Oddie. But no film could stand up against the tremulous, emotion-filled, ultra-thespian enunciation of Miss Swinton, and that's before we even get to what she is reading -a script of startlingly saccharine, purple-mood words, as informative as the collected lyrics of Enya. It's been written by someone with a "well-thumbed" cliche dictionary, to a background tune that sounds like music to eat muesli by. A potentially memorable documentary has been turned into the television equivalent of a Hallmark card; it was like dressing an iguana in a tutu, or painting polka dots on a tortoise. I dare anyone at the BBC to tell me the look and hideous kitsch gloss of these films had nothing to do with the co-production money from the National Geographic channel. Anyway, to Paul and Richard: better luck next time.

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