By Dave Sewell
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Dramatic life of plants shown in extraordinary new detail

There are cinematic flourishes and incredible photography in the BBC’s Green Planet—making it a stunning insight into a world at risk, says Dave Sewell
Issue 2786
David Attenborough sits on the base of a giant tree trunk

David Attenborough leaves the recording booth to return to the forest (Picture: BBC)

One nature writer compared the life of plants to trench warfare, in contrast to the guerrilla campaigns waged by animals.

But in David Attenborough’s new documentary series The Green Planet, they come across more like wrestlers.

Vines grapple onto the leaves of a balsa sapling that in turn repels them with tiny spines. Tendrils flail like whips, leaves unfurl like sails and bulging walls of spikes crush their rivals underwater.

It’s almost three decades since the BBC’s The Private Life of Plants. It used then-novel timelapse photography to open up to a mass audience the timescales on which plants live out their often violent lives.

That’s long enough ago for a ­generation of producers and technicians inspired by it to push the technology further.

Green Planet uses a new robotic motion control system nicknamed the Triffid to reproduce some of the flourishes that drone cameras have brought to animal documentaries.

There’s also some truly incredible microscopic and macro photography. It shows in exquisite detail the folds on a fungal spore or the mouth-like stomata through which leaves “breath”.

In a world saturated with new content, this innovation is part of what makes the BBC Nature Unit’s work some of the only truly “must watch” TV. Then there’s Attenborough’s almost unrivalled star power.

Green Planet sees him trade in the recording booth for the forest far more than other recent series, and he’s in his element.

The way his face lights up as he describes the bat pollinating a flower before his eyes is truly infectious.

Recent years have seen great strides in mycology—the study of funguses, and their complex relationships with plants and each other. Fittingly, one highlight of the first episode is a colony of ants that bring leaves to a fungus which then provides them with mushrooms.

Ask yourselves who is farming whom—and don’t expect the plants to just sit back and get eaten.

But as with all contemporary nature films, The Green Planet is made under the shadow of capitalism’s one-sided and increasingly devastating war on biodiversity.

It’s perhaps too much to ask of Attenborough and his team, immersed in nature, to have the solutions to this human social and political problem.

From where he stands in the shrinking remains of a disappearing forest, it’s the undifferentiated “we” of humanity that he sees encroaching.

In the past he has too often put the blame on the wrong shoulders, in the process letting the system off the hook.

There are few signs The Green Planet will change this. Though it perhaps softens the tone of anger and despair that made recent series such as last year’s A Perfect Planet so painful to watch.

In that sense, what’s missing from a truly environmentalist broadcasting is someone applying to capitalism the same scrutiny the Nature Unit brings to the natural world.

That task falls to others. But for a better celebration of the biodiversity that we need to defend, you couldn’t ask for better.

Green Planet will air on the BBC this January

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