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'Glorious yet frustrating': Baroness Bennett reviews 'The Green Planet'

'Glorious yet frustrating': Baroness Bennett reviews 'The Green Planet'

BBC Studios | Light gap: ‘battle’ A vine has grabbed hold of the leaf of another plant in order to pull itself into the light

3 min read

A triumph of innovative production, the new series from the BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit successfully depicts epic life and death stories from the plant-kingdom – but so far tells us frustratingly little about plant cooperation

In The Blue Planet series, Sir David Attenborough and his teams pioneered wildlife documentary ground in the depths of the oceans. With The Green Planet, they’re heading for a different – narrative – frontier, making plants and fungi the stars and near-complete focus of the show, rather than more obviously relatable animals.

Sure there are some cuddly sloths and cute bearded pigs in the opening episode, covering tropical rainforests from Costa Rica to northern Australia, but it is plants – and not just the obvious novelty of carnivorous pitcher plants or beautiful, nectar-rich balsa flowers, but also strangler vines and Lepiotaceae fungus (presented as being the boss of leafcutter ants, rather than the more usual idea of ants farming fungi) – who in glorious, time-lapse photography are at the centre of epic stories of life and death struggles.

There’s no doubt the plant kingdom can live up to the visual demands of the medium. In the second episode, focused on freshwater plants, the takeover of a pond by voraciously fast-growing, savagely spined lily pads is something to behold.

Visually and narratively, The Green Planet is a triumph of innovative production: captivating viewing

And in Episode One there is an unlikely triumph-over-adversity story – a classic of the wildlife genre – in the flowering of the male corpse flower, the visit of a carrion fly to it, then its passing on, with the parcel of pollen deposited on its back, to a female flower. As a piece of narrative, it works beautifully. 

But – and I found it a very big but – the whole framing of The Green Planet is of Tennyson’s nature, red in tooth and claw, beginning with the classic narration at the start of Episode One of an old tree falling in the forests, and saplings competing for light and space.

Influenced by my Christmas reading, Finding the Mother Tree: Uncovering the Wisdom and Intelligence of the Forest, the groundbreaking science of Suzanne Simard, discoverer of the “world-wide wood”, I found myself wondering where were the amazing stories of cooperation – of a “mother tree” fostering her offspring, or species using fungi to exchange nutrients, helping each other out in times of want?

There’s a hint of this balancing in Episode One, where the defensive poison produced by one tree under attack by leafcutter ants affects the fungus they are feeding on, leading them to move on to a different species – but again this is presented as a war, species against species.

I also couldn’t but be struck by the – entirely fascinating – end story in Episode One explaining some of the technology used to produce the spectacular images. Every person who had a speaking – even a walk-on role – was male.

Now, credit where due, the final part of Episode One presents an extremely timely, and important, explanation of the ecological threat that our global remnants of rainforest are under. And it can only be hoped that its impact matches that of Blue Planet II, with its greatly raised awareness of the choking of our planet with plastic – although I’m not sure why the palm oil plantations were not named for what they are.

Visually and narratively, The Green Planet is a triumph of innovative production: captivating viewing. But the limits of genre mean it doesn’t reach its stated aim of a plants’ eye view of the world: that would require an innovation in the nature of the narrative – one of cooperation rather than competition

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle is Green peer

The Green Planet
Series producer: Rupert Barrington
Presenter and narrator: David Attenborough
Broadcaster: BBC One / iPlayer

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