Earthflight (BBC1)

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Earthflight is hardly a new programme, having originally been shown on BBC1 over a year ago, but given that it’s currently in the middle of a rerun on the channel on Sundays I thought I was worth a quick mention nonetheless.

On one level this isn’t going to surprise anyone with even a passing familiarity to the BBC’s prodigious and indeed prestigious wildlife output, being the same reliable high-quality blend of fascinating nature facts and eye-popping photography. Along with Pixar animations, BBC wildlife programmes are surely what high-definition media was made for and Earthflight certainly doesn’t let the side down.

Elsewhere, a couple of things give this series a bit of an unusual twist from the usual BBC fare. One is that it has a particularly effective structure to it, being based on the migratory flights of birds with each of the six episodes featuring a different species of avian aviators on a different continent photographed using new techniques including cameras actually attached to the birds themselves to give a unique insight into what it’s like to fly and soar high in the sky. While the birds are central to the show, the series also takes time to stop off and look at the wildlife and geography at the different places that the birds stop off and stay during their epic journey, meaning there are plenty of other animals (either prey, or preying) sharing the screen to ensure it doesn’t get too narrow-focused.

The other ‘twist’ is that for once the narrator isn’t David Attenborough. Now I’m as much of an admirer of Sir David as the next person – I’ve grown up with his voice being the one true source of wisdom on all things to do with nature – and usually find it difficult to adjust to an ‘inauthentic’ replacement, especially when it’s just some know-nothing actor brought in to do the voiceover. Perhaps it’s because I’m a fan of his work elsewhere (Doctor Who, Broadchurch) but in the case of Earthflight the selection of David Tennant absolutely works for me in a way that few other stand-ins ever have in these sorts of programmes. There’s something about the way Tennant conveys vitality with a sense of warmth and humour (without ever mocking the subjects) that brings the script alive and keeps it interesting in a way that few other wildlife shows manage to do. Bypassing Attenborough means that the show is signalling that this might not be as educational and high-brow as the usual fare, but that it might just be rather more entertaining instead. Clearly the production team liked the end product as Tennant was brought back for the more overtly humorous Penguins – Spy in the Huddle follow-up earlier this year (although for my money, penguins are horrible over-exposed in the natural world, and after all the films and TV shows they’ve starred in recently there probably isn’t a penguin on the planet left without theatrical representation!)

The only problem with not having Attenborough on board is that the show lacks his indelible stamp of authenticity: there are close-up tracking shots of birds flying through the air against the backdrop of London or New York which are simply too good to be true and which at the time I wrote off as digitally-composited artistic liberties rather than the real thing. I was somewhat startled and rather chagrined by a photo gallery special feature which clearly shows many of these exact sequences being captured for real by cameramen flying in microlights alongside flocks of birds. In hindsight I feel rather embarrassed to have displayed such jaded cynicism in believing otherwise.

Overall I find Earthflight to be one of the more fun and easily-rewatchable nature shows of recent years; I’ve already bought it on DVD for other people, and the current re-run made me finally break down and get the Blu-ray for myself as well. If paying out well-earned cash for multiple copies of the same thing doesn’t already speak volumes of my high regard for this programme then there’s nothing more I can add to this review to convince you.

It’ll be you that’s missing out if you don’t try it, though.

Earthflight continues on Sunday early evenings (around 5.30pm) on BBC1 and is available on DVD and Blu-ray.

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