The first episode of this six-part series focused on Africa’s south-western deserts, and in particular how animals’ lives centre around the search for water. Some stories were more directly related to this than others, leading to the patchy storytelling inherent to this kind of documentary – in one slightly cruel segment, the show visited a huge freshwater lake deep underground, which lies out of reach of all the thirsty mammals above and is enjoyed only by the occasional blind crayfish, who presumably don’t know how lucky they are. The show also seems rather vague in terms of its location, titling the episode ‘Kalahari’ and then spending the last quarter of its running time in the Namib desert instead.
Despite these quibbles, though, Africa is quite superb. You may think you’ve seen this all before, but the research and cinematography on display here will prove you wrong. Have you seen a flirtatious black rhino? A sceptical meerkat? An inept leopard hanging out of a tree like one of those non-motivational posters? The Africa team have, and they want to show them to you. Almost every animal covered is shown in a different light to the straightforward “here is a lion eating a gazelle” documentaries of old. The camerawork gets up close and personal on an amazing variety of small, everyday moments, highlighting everything from the tiny Golden Wheel Spider executing its eponymous cartwheel in beautiful slow motion, to the marvellous snapping-to-attention motion of a giraffe deciding to stand up after a drink.
Along the way, every opportunity is taken to amaze us with stunning shots of the surroundings – at time, it feels like the landscape is the star of the show more than the life upon it. But even if we’ve seen these animals before, no trip to the zoo could possibly capture the grandeur of shifting sand dunes, the intense heat of desert sun or the vast expanses of arid land that make sense of the survival mechanisms on show. Armoured ground crickets, for example, look large but boring – until you see them climb a tree to eat baby birds, squirt blood in the eyes of defensive angry mummy birds, and eventually get turfed out and eaten by their own cannibalistic species. Many of the shots on display here are also simply stunning, needing no further reason to exist. The capabilities of the ‘starlight camera’ used to capture rhino behaviour are idly displayed via a majestic shot of the Milky Way stretching overhead, while an introduction to a bird that gets hungry in winter captures the puff of its condensing breath in the frosty dawn air. These are moments where you just want to pause the television and stare at it while your brain quietly goes ‘wow’.
In an age of press scandals, it’s somehow reassuring to know that the BBC may still be the best in the world at making beautiful, informative series that show us the whole of that world in all its natural glory – and provide us a way to escape the gloom of British winter, too.