The Green Planet, BBC1, review: David Attenborough turns to plants


If there was any doubt that the established combination of Sir David Attenborough and the BBC Natural History Unit would produce anything less than gossipy TV with their latest venture, The Green Planet, so shame the skeptics.

We first saw the 93-year-old presenter standing next to one of the oldest living things on the planet, the majestic suitcase of a California sequoia tree – a perfectly appropriate juxtaposition, as Attenborough is the sequoia tree for British television.

And Sir David’s new offer is all about plants. He’s been here before with his 1995 series The private life of plants, but the technology has gone fast since then. His current attempt to “see things from the plant’s perspective” uses a motion-controlled timelapse camera (we learned during the program’s how-we-made-it postscript) called “The Triffid.”

And speaking of triffids, anyone who had a misconception that plants live an immaculate, peaceful existence would have been shocked when Attenborough explained that it’s a leaf-eating leaf world out there.

He began in the rainforests of Costa Rica, where only 2 percent of sunlight reaches through the treetop and down to the forest floor. All that changes when an old tree dies and the undergrowth is suddenly flooded with rays. Since photosynthesis was the food of plants, this sunlight seemed like the smell of a wildebeest flock on a hungry lioness, and the hunt for light was underway.

In a three-way race between a cheese plant, a balsa plant and a vine trying to get a ride on the other two, the balsa won thanks to its smooth leaves. My money had been on the vine considering the way winds prevailed in my backyard.

Dog mens The Green Planet can be plant-based, it does not mean that the vegetation itself is vegan. We met several species that ingested insects, while the largest (and ugliest) flower on the planet – “corpse flower” from Borneo Attracts carrion with its charming aroma of rotting meat.

Attenborough’s previous BBC series were criticized for deviating from environmental considerations and suggesting that we were still living in the middle of untouched nature. But this one followed his more recent programs by including an eco-message – or rather (pictures say more than a thousand words) a horrific view of orderly monoculture that has replaced the tangled abundance of the tropical rainforest.

David Attenborough has been here before with his 1995 series The private life of the plants, but the technology has advanced since then (Photo: Paul Williams / BBC Studios)

Human agriculture can be relentless, but it competes with efficiency leucoagaricus, a fungus that lives deep underground. In the episode’s most astonishing sequence, it was demonstrated how this underground blob uses leaf-cutting ants to bring that nourishment from the trees.

The postscript explained the careful work behind that sequence. Do we need to know that? Maybe not, but it’s something to wave to lazy BBC bashers.

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