David Attenborough has written Kingdom of Plants as well as voiced it. He’s on form. If it wasn’t for the Sky3D logo at the beginning, you’d never guess it was touched by the hand of Murdoch.
David Attenborough is a puzzle. It’s easy enough to say why he’s the best science communicator on television. It could be his infectious enthusiasm. Or maybe it’s knowing when not to speak and let the images speak for themselves. But that’s only half the programme. Attenborough shows tend to be extremely well-filmed. What is it about Attenborough that works so well to get the best out of the camera operators?
For the three programmes in Kingdom of Plants they had the right location to film. Instead of traipsing around the planet, they shot mainly in Kew Gardens. A large number of sequences are time-lapse to show plants in motion. This is not new in itself. He covered similar ground twenty years ago in The Private Life of Plants. However, techniques have improved since then and not just because the output can be in HD.
Still while the technology has changed, a lot of entry-level botany hasn’t in the past twenty years, so The Private Life of Plants casts a bit of a shadow over Kingdom of Plants. The new series, with half the time of the BBC production, is understandably lacking in places. What makes Kingdom of Plants worth watching is that Attenborough hasn’t settled for making a highlights version of his earlier series. Is not just the plants that star in series, he has something extra.
Kew itself is a character in the series. Attenborough emphasises the unique collections at Kew and its scientific role. In one episode Attenborough talks to Carlos Magdalena about his work saving Nymphaea thermarum. In the next episode it’s a talk about identifying and preserving café marron. He talks about the architecture too. I now have a new appreciation of the Alpine House, including why you would stick a load of plants that need to be cool under lots of glass in the sunshine.
There is a sense a few times that he’s done some of this before. The Nepenthes sequence in The Private Life of Plants with the pitchers hissing as they open is extremely memorable. It’s done again in Kingdom of Plants and technically it may be better, but it’s not quite the same impact. On the other hand things that are classic Attenborough, like getting down to flower-level to talk about an orchid, are what you tend to watch these things for. Physically there’s no reason why someone else couldn’t do the same, and getting to ground level to talk about a plant on the ground is a sensible and obvious idea. It’s just that when someone else does it, you feel like they’re attempting an Attenborough impression.
Another element of any good Attenborough impression is the enthusiasm. He still has this, and this is probably the secret element in his programmes. He has a genuine interest and wonder in the subjects he makes a programme about.
Is the 3D impressive? Well, the 2D is impressive. And I wonder if one reason there’s only three episodes is partly from the sheer work it takes to film in this quality. As far as 3D goes it’s some of the best I’ve seen, but I’ve not seen a lot and the stuff I have seen has tended to be disappointing. When the images appear to be deep in the television, it’s usually good. When the images poke out of the television, like a branch bearing blossoms, it’s less successful. The images are bounded by the frame of the television so some branches seem like they’re oddly chopped off. Occasionally the depth-of-field is extremely wide so that everything from the foreground to the horizon a long way away looks 3D but in focus regardless of distance. My eyes don’t work like that and it looks disconcerting on television.
We tend not to admire television programmes in the same way as we do painting, music or even films (if they’re in black and white or have subtitles). If we did, I think we’d celebrate Attenborough’s programmes as works of art, and Kingdom of Plants would be considered as good an example of his work as anything else he’s done.