Africa - Built on Sand
Episode One: Kalahari
Reviewed by Africa aficionado & wildlife photographer, Paul Goldstein.
Four years in the making, vaults of license-payers money, filmed in a place where there isn't even a direct flight to, this had better be good. It was. Deliciously, it is the first of a series. It is said the first three weeks of January are the most depressing of the year; the third Monday of this month has more sick days than any other. The ghastly weather of the past six months hit rock bottom over Christmas, so what better to dry out the cellars, carpets and flood plains than a scorching show from the deserts of South West Africa.
When you gorge yourself on such fertile fruit, it is dangerous to comment immediately as it can resemble a BBC Bristol 'love-in' but to pre-empt criticisms, I do have some comments that are not hyperbolic but these are feathery criticisms. This was a blinding piece of filmmaking, let's be honest here, Attenborough's programmes usually are!
The opening sequence was epic, although a little predictable: the dramatic Google Earth style images and distant Band Aid drums, but then came along a dung beetle tackling a sandy black run with a meal to go. This ripped me out of my seat, I am so attuned to seeing yet another iconic African species in opening credits that this quirky folly made me gasp. It made me smile too. It did not need Sir David to tell me then that “there is so much more here than we ever imagined” - the picture had inferred that. He finished his intro with 'this is Africa' - thank you to the patronising script writer for putting that bilge in his mouth, but frankly I could have had the TV on mute as the momentary glimpse of the elephants in the dust devil was intoxicating. This is what my (television) license fee is for; I could have turned off content that I had already seen moments of un-alloyed genius. Forget reality shows, this is entertainment – none of these stars had to go through the execrable casting couch ordeals that Mr Cowell's non-entities do, and all of them provided a thrill that plastic photo-shopped singers could never emulate. I want this quality to last the whole of the series.
Mystical Namibian crop circles overtured the drongo comparing the meerkats before crying wolf - did you know they could do a liar bird impression? No, nor did I. Then of course the young leopard, complete with wannabe Dire Straits soundtrack, branching out unsuccessfully. Leopards are a familiar subject on the silver screen, it was by concentrating on lesser species then using them as the conduits for others that distanced 'Kalahari' from much of the inferior programmes masquerading as documentaries on cable channels. The ostrich sequence was not relegated to a short avian cameo but a long segment, superbly filmed, especially the low angle on the juveniles. The travails of these hot chicks suddenly mattered to me. I have spent many an hour at Okendeka waterhole in Etosha where they finally got their round in just before last orders, but I have never seen ostrich chicks there. The ground view of the other animals was a vital perspective and the rowdy lions scrapping at sling-out time in the dust enlivened an already beautifully composed story line, also an adult one. This is crucial, it was educating as well as illuminating. I'll even forget the childish clarinet of saxophone sounds the editors feel imperative whenever there is something remotely cute or anthropomorphic.
New gadgets and cameras are almost de riguer for these sort of programmes, but when they in turn highlight something new it doubles their value. Finding out that rhinos like to socialise over a pint or two was fascinating, as were their 'Carry On' soundtrack-style murmurings and complicated love triangles - never mind Somalia or Eritrea, this was really the 'horn of Africa'.
I was beginning to recline into a haze of disbelief at this meticulous camerawork when along came the crickets - this was ugly. I have seen this on the road in Namibia after rain as these cannibals devoured each other, searching for any weakness in the armoured guard just like a West Indian bowler looking for the soft spot in a callow English 70's batsman. Brutal: nature at its most raw and visceral and just not cricket.
The sequence to take us from water back to land was the finest of the show: the horrible wasp (yes I know they are part of Noah's lot but find me someone who likes them) and the Golden wheel spider. As his sandy crib was violated he put in a perfect six score on the floor routine to evade his horrid pursuer. Genius. I was leaning so far forward in my chair I was in danger of a stiff neck, this is a very poor segue to the denouement, the gold, the grail: the great giraffe grapple. This was incredible: I have seen them scrap many times but never like this: backlit, dusty with some fearful body blows before one pulled the wool over the other’s eyes with an old 'play dead' ruse before sending his adversary to the russet canvas like he'd been felled by Marciano in his prime. Never has watching a load of old bull been so inspired, not sure it needed the Good, Bad and Ugly soundtrack though!
Sir David informs us that 'Kalahari' means 'land of great thirst', anyone else fancy slaking their not inconsiderable thirst on the fertile 'Savannah' next week?
Read the second Episode: Savannah reviewed by Paul.