Paul Goldstein reviews the remarkable first ‘blue chip’ episode of Frozen Planet
Four years in the making, 40 in the memory, Wednesday’s icy opening salvo was off the scale. This was an epic documentary which proves that might (and budget) is right. Everyone will have their favourite moments: orcas, ice crystals, wolf hunts or bears but that was the quickest hour I have ever watched on TV. Even the normally smug bit at the end where camera men and women show how their job is so much better than yours, was effective.
A heavyweight BBC Bristol ground-breaking (should that be ice-breaking) production, this formula owes at least a nod to Planet Earth, the astonishing series from five years ago. I felt that series was let down by chucking too many picture cards at the opening episodes, a necessary ruse but one that left the final broadcasts a little lightweight. I fear this may be the same but judging by the trailer for next week, there is still plenty of aces in the frozen deck.
Is this what the licence fee is for? A resounding yes. Is it right that the natural history unit spends millions on these capers? Yes. For not only is it frozen fauna as never seen before, but it is also educational as all these areas are desperately precarious on so many levels. In short, this series matters.
A couple of years ago I was lucky enough to spend three weeks with some of the Frozen Planet crew in Antarctica. We got stuck in the ice on that journey and were grateful we had those three on board as they could not have been more accommodating and entertaining. They had none of the precious prima donna nonsense so often associated with film crews and really earned their corn during that week-long icy-impasse. We were lucky enough to see some of the footage taken by helicopter of the emperor penguins which gave us some idea of the skill and commitment of these dedicated individuals.
But anyway, back to episode one, it is difficult to know where to start: the Spitsbergen male bear advancing Wenceslas-like in the female’s footsteps or the jawing and fighting later on in that sequence. Could it be the humpbacks rising imperiously among the millions of shearwaters, perhaps Armageddon of that huge glacier cave. However a straw poll would surely favour the wolf hunt or Weddell seal demise, not forgetting the sea lion chasing down the Falklands Gentoo. Whoops, I almost forgot the coruscating sequences from below the ice-cap.
The point is any one of those highlights would easily command a whole show but here they were dovetailed into 60 minutes. The filming was incredible, the music irritating, but it always is, but above all with this sort of footage plus the endearingly brilliant Attenborough, small excesses are easily forgiven. Many times I felt my shutter release finger twitch as yet another impossibly photogenic moment held my eye: the indignant snort from the bison, the airborne surfing Gentoos or that moment (surely) of the series as the bison sent his colleague cartwheeling in front of the coursing wolves.
Polar regions are harsh, unforgiving environments. They do not release their secrets without a scrap, one of the reasons I love Spitsbergen. To stand on the bow of an ice-breaker as she crackles through summer sea ice, eyes scorched by the 24 hour daylight on an endless quest for bears, is wildlife viewing from the highest firmament. No-one travelling there or indeed watching this masterpiece can have any illusions of how demanding these moving pictures are to produce, yet this is what gives it its charm as well as gravitas.
Any relation reading this, especially jumper-buying aunts, a boxed set for Christmas will do nicely. It was sensational but also harrowing, almost visceral in intensity and indeed on occasion, frightening. However sadly the most terrifying thing is the execrable X Factor will still get more viewers.
Frozen Planet is on Wednesdays on BBC1 at 9pm. Missed the first episode? It will be repeated on Sunday at 4:10pm on BBC1
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