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Africa: Episode One - BBC One (Review)

Africa, BBC One

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

IT’S around about this time every year that we begin to dust off the superlatives for the latest BBC Wildlife programme fronted by David Attenborough. Africa looks set to be no exception.

Episode one, set in the Kalahari, was a magnificent showcase of what the BBC does best. It was beautiful, inspiring, eye-opening and informative. It made us laugh, it made us curl up into a ball and watch from behind our hands, and it captured nature at its most tender and vicious.

Little wonder that a continent of such vast extremes conjured images that were every bit as extreme in their own way.

Highlights of this first hour (and there were many) included the hitherto unseen sight of rhinos gathering around a secret water hole at night to be social and even tender. Known for their grumpy daytime demeanour, this was – by Attenborough’s own admission – something of a revelation.

The footage, captured by specially built starlight-sensitive cameras in astonishingly clear black-and-white, was amazing… whether it involved the sight of a mother rhino and her calf rubbing horns with another mother, or a randy female rhino attracting the attention of two males.

If that was the tender, then the brutal came from the astonishing sight of two male giraffes fighting each other for a female in the unforgiving environment of the Namib Desert. Captured in ultra-slow motion, this was an extraordinary demonstration of savagery from a pair of animals more commonly associated with awkward beauty and gentleness.

Watching them thrash their necks into each other, drawing blood with each blow, was amazing. And then came the knockout moment, quite literally, as the older, more experienced giraffe landed a telling blow to his young challenger’s belly, forcing him to crumple like a boxer hitting the canvas, out for the count. It was a quite staggering end to an awe-inspiring show.

What’s more, it was done using Attenborough’s trademark humour… via a soundtrack that suggested a Wild West showdown between these two strutting beasts. It was a nice touch that enhanced the spectacle and theatricality of this rare natural event.

If the rhinos and giraffes provided the out and out highlights, then there was more to savour along the way, albeit for very different reasons.

The grim sight of armoured ground crickets creeping into birds’ nests to eat their defenceless young had an almost horror movie like quality… was I the only one to recall the ickiness of Ridley Scott’s original face-huggers in Alien as the legs of one cricket rose into the air before coming down on one helpless chick?

Fortunately, we were spared the sight of it being devoured by the return of the chick’s mother – but even then, the cricket had a go at fighting back by squirting blood into the eyes of the protective parents. The cricket did, ultimately, fail and found itself the victim of its own cannibal species.

Horrific, too, was the prospect of a pompilid spider wasp using the body of a golden wheel spider as a nest for its egg… although, in this instance, the spider had the last laugh by rolling away (hence the name) across the dunes – footage of which had an almost magical, spell-binding quality.

The humour, meanwhile, came from the sight of a gaggle of ostrich chicks minding the heavy traffic (elephants, giraffes, zebras) on their way to water, or a little bird out-smarting (or conning) meerkats in its bid for winter food.

But no matter what Attenborough’s camera turned its eye towards, there was generally something to enthral and dazzle.

A minor criticism might be that some stories warranted further attention, or even merited a whole hour to themselves. But given the vastness of the continent at hand, and the BBC’s ability to offer viewers such rare insights into the hitherto unseen habits of its many and varied inhabitants, it would be a lot to ask.

As things stand, Africa already rates as another fantastic, five-star achievement for Attenborough and the BBC Wildlife team.