Although I had given up on Human Planet, the latest blockbuster documentary series by the BBC Natural History Unit, a few weeks ago, as a mountaineer who loves mountain photography, I knew I wouldn’t be able to resist the episode on mountains, and decided to watch it on BBC iPlayer last night.
The series has been winning praise among critics, in many respects justifiably. It’s an interesting concept, starting with the premise that only one species – humans – has been able to flourish in every habitat in the world, and going on to describe numerous stories of day-to-day survival in the unlikeliest of places. And as with everything that comes out of the BBC Natural History Unit, the photography is amazing. Unfortunately it’s a real shame they didn’t decide to spend some of their budget on decent writers, because the script is truly shocking.
The BBC were right to ask John Hurt, rather than a natural history presenter, to provide the narration, however. Only a distinguished thespian could have hammed it up and done justice to the corny script, surely the most banal for a film about mountains since Vertical Limit.
Here are some of Hurt’s classic lines (you need to say them in a growly voice like in a movie trailer for maximum effect):
“Mountains are among the most brutal environments on Earth” (0:45)
“The higher you climb, the tougher it gets” (0:55)
“The Altai Mountains in Mongolia are among the most remote on Earth” (2:20)
“Indonesia is home to more active volcanic mountains than any nation on Earth” (18:10)
“This is one of the most biologically rich mountain landscapes on Earth” (22:40)
“Knowing every inch of your mountain can mean the difference between life and death” (28:10)
“There are mountains where the forces of nature cannot be tamed” (33:40)
“The Himalaya is the highest mountain range on Earth” (33:50)
“As you climb higher in these mountains, it’s how to deal with death that poses a problem” (40:40)
The programme does contain one heart-warming sequence, when a Nepalese doctor removes the bandages of an elderly woman whose cataracts he’s just operated on, and she can see for the first time in three years. What makes this sequence so special? Answer: because Hurt keeps his trap shut and the producer lets his subjects do the talking for a change.
It’s hard to imagine the great David Attenborough agreeing to narrate this series. It seems more likely he would have torn up the script and fed it to the mountain gorillas.
But without him to guide the Natural History Unit, with whom he made so many genre-defining wildlife documentary series, do they really have to go all Hollywood on us?
Or am I the only one who cares? After all, the photography IS truly breathtaking.