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The Polar Bear Family & Me - Episode 1 review

The Polar Bear Family & Me

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 5 out of 5

A COUPLE of years ago, wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan had me enthralled with his excellent three-part series The Bear Family & Me in which he bravely ventured to the Northwoods of Minnesota (by the Great Lakes) to further our understanding of the American black bear and get up close and very personal to them.

Now, he ups the ante considerably by journeying to the Arctic (in this case, Svalbard) to bring that same understanding and access to the polar bear. And the results, so far, are every bit as amazing.

Whether capturing footage of polar bear cubs playing with their mother and ‘toboganing’ down a snow slope, or being ‘attacked’ by a hungry male himself, Buchanan’s programme was nothing short of extraordinary.

It also succeeded in capturing the majestic beauty of the bears, as well as their ferocious power. Make no mistake, one of nature’s most breathtaking creatures is also one of its deadliest.

Some may accuse Buchanan of being fool-hardy, especially when seemingly putting himself deliberately in harm’s way. But he’s no Timothy Treadwell. Every precaution was taken to keep him from becoming a meal… even though there were times when viewers and camera-man collectively held their breath as they came within touching distance of a bear’s nose.

On that occasion, Buchanan had placed himself in a specially commissioned cage, reinforced with aluminium and plastic, and positioned by a seal hole in the hope of getting the closest footage yet of polar bears feeding. Instead, it [the cage] and Buchanan [inside] became its sole focus of attention.

The footage of the hungry bear attempting to puzzle and claw its way inside, from where Buchanan’s odour provided a tantalising incentive, was incredible. You genuinely feared for him, while placing yourself in that unenviable ‘what would I do in the same situation’ frame of mind?

As if to underline further the great power of the bear, Buchanan later offered an up-close view of a sedated mother’s fur, feet and claws. These are ruthlessly efficient killing machines – intelligent too and focused.

Yet Buchanan isn’t merely in Svalbard to entertain and gather lifetime memories. He’s on a mission to further our understanding of polar bears and to secure footage that may help scientists to safeguard them against an increasingly perilous future.

Hence, as enchanting as this programme was throughout, the shadow of climate change and the melting polar caps remained an ominous part of the equation.

And just as we’ve fallen in love with mama bear and her two angelic cubs – Mickey and Luca – we know, too, that survival is something to be achieved against the odds, particularly as the hunting grounds provided by the ice provides an ever-diminishing lifeline.

As Buchanan succinctly put it, this is where the drama really begins. And over the next two nights, it should be a gripping, sometimes agonizing but utterly unmissable viewing with an important environmental message behind it.

The Polar Bear Family & Me is on BBC2 on Tuesday, January 8, 2013 at 9.30pm and on Thursday, January 10, 2013 at 9.30pm.