David Attenborough​ was born in 1926, the same year as Marilyn Monroe, Fidel Castro and Elizabeth II. He began hosting Zoo Quest on BBC television in 1954; not quite seventy years later, his latest series, Wild Isles, has just finished airing (it’s still available on iPlayer, or Amazon Prime for those outside the UK). It’s as magnificent as anyone could hope for from a BBC nature documentary presented by Attenborough, living up to and continuing the standards set by Life on Earth (1979) and its many sequels. The model for Life on Earth – thirteen hour-long episodes telling the story of evolution – was Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969), which Attenborough had commissioned as controller of BBC2. Other programmes he brought to the channel included The Old Grey Whistle Test, Monty Python’s Flying Circus and (making the most of the new colour technology) the snooker show Pot Black, as well as Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. In 1969 Attenborough became director of programmes for both BBC1 and BBC2 and could probably have gone on to be director-general, but in 1973 he resigned to work on his own broadcasting projects. There must be millions of people, from several generations, for whom Attenborough’s nature documentaries – in my case, repeats of Life on Earth in 1981-82 – were among the earliest TV they saw that wasn’t either sport or made specifically for children.

The first episode of Wild Isles begins with footage from a drone swooping in over the English Channel towards the chalk cliffs of Old Harry Rocks in Dorset, both the shot and George Fenton’s orchestral score slyly reminiscent of the opening of The Sound of Music, though the solitary figure who gradually comes into view on the cliff edge is dressed in a sturdy bright blue anorak rather than the costume of a novice nun. Unlike Julie Andrews he doesn’t do a full 360-degree twirl but as the film cuts to close-up Attenborough turns inland to face the camera – binoculars swung round his neck, as if he has been waiting and watching for the viewer’s arrival from across the sea – and speaks, his familiar voice as reassuringly husky and emphatic as ever: ‘In my long life, I’ve been lucky enough to travel to almost every part of the globe and gaze on some of its most beautiful and dramatic sites. But I can assure you that nature in these islands, if you know where to look, can be just as dramatic and spectacular as anything that I’ve seen elsewhere.’

A montage of the delights to come in the five-part series – a kingfisher bursting from a river in a spray of high-definition slow-motion droplets, stags rutting in a shallow river (more spray), dolphins racing through shafts of underwater sunlight, an otter likewise, a puffin defending its catch of eels from a black-headed gull, a murmuration of starlings swirling through the evening skies – gives way to a few seconds of satellite footage showing Britain from space. Cut again to another drone shot, heading inland from the North Sea this time, as far from Old Harry Rocks as you can get in the British Isles, towards Muckle Flugga lighthouse in the northernmost of the Shetland Islands, to watch a pod of orca hunting for seals.

The narrative rhythms of such sequences are by now firmly established, whether it’s a pride of lions bringing down a zebra on the Serengeti or white-tailed eagles going after barnacle geese in the Hebrides (as happens later in the first episode of Wild Isles): the singling out of the prey (‘one exhausted goose is left behind’), the sudden pursuit, the desperate flight, the near escape, the soundtrack of menacing strings and horns in a minor key (Holst’s ‘Mars’ meets John Williams’s Jaws), the eventual triumph of the predator and the coup de grâce: ‘The orca takes its catch out into open water, and there shows younger members of the pod how to drown it.’ The point of view switches between predator and prey but our final sympathies are usually steered towards the carnivore: ‘the whole group now share the catch; nothing will be wasted’; ‘the goose is so heavy the young eagle has to struggle to hold on’; ‘at least the cubs will have something to eat this evening’.

There are settled formulas for the depiction of mating rituals, too. When Attenborough’s voiceover observes that ‘the other males want both his territory and the female, and they are willing to fight,’ he could be talking about any number of species anywhere on earth, though as it happens the creatures in this case are banded demoiselle damselflies on a chalk stream in south-east England.

The later episodes in the series focus on a particular habitat – ‘Woodlands’, ‘Grasslands’, ‘Freshwater’, ‘Ocean’ – but the first instalment is an overview called ‘Our Precious Isles’, like a half-remembered allusion to John of Gaunt’s diatribe in Richard II, conjuring the ‘sceptred isle’ and ‘precious stone set in the silver sea’ popular with mawkish patriots who for some reason always stop quoting the speech before they get to the bit about England being ‘now bound in with shame’ having ‘made a shameful conquest of itself’. It would be nice to think the title was a knowing wink from Attenborough and his collaborators – when he says that ‘our mild climate’ is a ‘vital refuge’ and ‘we are in just the right place to welcome migrants’ it must be a dig at the Home Office, even if he’s ostensibly talking about barnacle geese – but the percussive beat of first-person plural pronouns (‘our biggest bird of prey’, ‘one of our loveliest birds’, ‘our flying insects’, ‘our traditional hay meadows’, ‘our Wild Isles’) suggests that the filmmakers may have succumbed to a degree of post-Brexit isolationism, even a form of eco-nationalism, however unconscious.

It needn’t be the work of a nature documentary to ask who ‘we’ are, but Wild Isles raises the question repeatedly without examining it. The scene moves frictionlessly between the different nations and regions of the North Atlantic archipelago, with a blithe assumption that all of it ‘belongs’ to all of ‘us’, while ducking questions of property ownership and political agency. As Fraser MacDonald wrote in the LRB of 23 September 2021, ‘the current spate of rewilding projects [in Scotland] is underlining the fact that ecology lies outside the structures of local democracy.’ Trout, minnows and the food chains they’re part of ‘require clean, free-flowing, fresh water’, Attenborough says. But in what sense do the streams and rivers belong to us (or, for that matter, the trout) when private water companies can pump raw sewage into them with impunity? In the words of the Environment Agency’s most recent report on water and sewerage companies in England, published last summer:

The sector’s performance on pollution was shocking, much worse than previous years. Serious pollution incidents increased to 62, the highest total since 2013 … Company directors let this occur and it is simply unacceptable. Over the years the public have seen water company executives and investors rewarded handsomely while the environment pays the price. The water companies are behaving like this for a simple reason: because they can.

Of course, Wild Isles doesn’t explicitly advocate for returning the water companies to public ownership (a policy backed by 69 per cent of the population but by neither of the leading political parties). But it does show people what is at stake: what may soon be lost and why it’s worth preserving. And it does that brilliantly well, in a way that’s blatantly manipulative yet entirely winning. I’m as susceptible as anyone to images of badgers cavorting in the bluebells, or of a dormouse emerging winking in the moonlight from its nest in Britain’s oldest oak tree, or of a bumblebee drilling pollen from a bittersweet flower. I’d save them all if I could.

At the end of the first episode we see Attenborough again, reclining among the ‘lovable’ puffins on Skomer Island, to remind viewers that Britain, ‘though rich in places, is one of the most nature-depleted countries in the world’. Over the previous sixty minutes he has reported a series of alarming statistics of decline: 97 per cent of Britain’s hay meadows have been lost in the last sixty years; 60 per cent of flying insects have vanished since the turn of the millennium.

In March, the Guardian reported that the BBC had ‘decided not to broadcast an episode of [Wild Isles] because of fears its themes of the destruction of nature would risk a backlash from Tory politicians and the right-wing press’. The BBC responded that the story was ‘totally inaccurate … We have acquired a separate film for iPlayer … about people working to preserve and restore the biodiversity of the British Isles.’ And there is little in ‘Saving Our Wild Isles’ likely to disturb the right (the Daily Mail said it was ‘ridiculous’ not to air the documentary on BBC1): it’s a very carefully made film, with no direct calls for changes in policy or regulation, or for any large-scale intervention in the climate emergency. Even the Telegraph couldn’t disapprove of its portraits of volunteer groups, eco-conscious farmers and environmentally friendly small businesses: divers in North Wales reseeding seagrass meadows; a two-hundred-year plan to bring trees back to the Cairngorms (‘a glimpse of the past and a hope for the future’); six thousand residents of the Lea Valley recording between them more than three hundred different species of wildlife; a former fisherman running dive tours in the ‘no take zone’ around Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel, where you can see dolphins, porpoises, whales, tuna, puffins, cormorants and seals that thrive in the small area of sea where fishing has been banned since 2003 (an initiative, the film says, taken voluntarily by local fishermen). ‘There are passionate people right across our isles making a better livelihood by working with nature rather than against it,’ Attenborough says: but they are not ‘the only ones who can make a difference’; everyone ‘can and must play a part’. There is ‘just enough time and just enough nature left to save our Wild Isles for our children and for future generations’. But will a revival of the Big Society be just enough to achieve it?

It’s a commonplace that where once people shot with guns to take trophies from nature, now (the likes of the Trump brothers excepted) they shoot with cameras. But the pace of extinction hasn’t slowed. Several of the species that have featured in Attenborough’s films over the last seventy years must have ceased to exist in the wild. Should it turn out that the efforts of a small number of dedicated volunteers and responsible businesses are not enough to reverse the decline, and there are no larger-scale interventions by governments to supplement or replace them, the footage shot for Attenborough’s films may in time come to be the best-preserved traces that remain of many of the animals featured in them, the digital equivalent of a tiger skin rug.

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