Monday 30 October: 9.33am. James Honeyborne pulls into a lay-by on his way to work in Bristol to take one of the most significant calls of his professional life.
The previous evening had been spent with his Blue Planet II team in a local pub watching the broadcast of the opening episode, enjoying (for the 25th time) not just those spectacular first 60 minutes of underwater drama but, more importantly, the outpouring of Twitter love the series curtain-raiser was producing.
The series had occupied Honeyborne’s every waking moment – and disturbed quite a few of his slumbering ones – for the previous four years. Not least because of the expectations generated by the success of last year’s hit Planet Earth II and, also, the not inconsiderable pressure that comes with splurging millions of pounds of BBC money.
The Twitter reaction was vindication, he hoped, that it had all been worthwhile – the phone call giving him the overnight viewing figures would provide the definitive proof. First on the line was publicist Tara Davies, followed immediately by the BBC’s director of content, Charlotte Moore. An average of 10.3 million viewers, peaking at 10.6 million, they both reported.
“It was astonishing. I just thought how wonderful that marine biology and oceanography can compete with everything else that’s on telly,” Honeyborne says.
His smile grew even broader as the week unfolded. Adding those who watched the Sunday-afternoon repeat and those who recorded it and watched later increased that overnight figure to 14.1 million – making it the most watched programme of 2017 and the most watched hour of natural-history film-making in more than 15 years.
Subsequent weeks matched that performance, with the third episode attracting an astonishing 45 per cent of the viewing audience.
“I can’t imagine what 14 million people looks like to be honest,” says Honeyborne. “But it’s wonderful to hear the conversations that are happening and that the connection with life beneath the waves is strengthening
“The reason for making these films is to share the wonders of the natural world. What’s then so amazing is when it reaches such a big audience and you realise that people are now having conversations they might not have been having the week before. And that’s the real reward. That sense of it actually changing the conversation.”
Key contributors to that conversation have been the young; that first episode not only trounced its ITV competition, The X Factor, but pulled in 2.3m 16- to 34-year-olds, nearly one million more than watched Cowell’s floundering talent show, and more than any episode of that other barometer of teenage TV engagement, Love Island.
Here Honeyborne reveals the secrets of Blue Planet II’s success.
Brilliant viewing figures, James, but what do you attribute the success of this series to?
One of the big challenges with making a series under water is that it can feel very cold, alien, remote and otherworldly. So, as film-makers, we have to make that world feel accessible and warm because then it’s a world we can begin to engage with and understand better. And perhaps even care for more.
And unlike Planet Earth it’s a landscape we’re less familiar with. Is it a fascination with the mysterious that’s drawing us in?
It’s definitely a world we understand less, but it’s also a world where there are a lot of new stories to tell. Just sometimes looking at an extraordinary creature is quite something, and then when it does something revelatory as well, that’s a compelling and heady mix for the audience.
The original Blue Planet series in 2001 was broadcast immediately after the horror of the Twin Towers and people connected with it because of a sense of despair about the world. Is the same thing going on now?
I think you’re right that people do like to escape to natural history, and the respect and love for Sir David is still very much there. He is the master storyteller. I’m sure there are multiple factors, but at the heart of this I do get a sense, looking at the demographics, that more young people are watching – there’s a key environmental interest by the younger generation coming in to play. It’s interesting that one of the most used words on Twitter and discussions around the first episode was “amazed”.
Yes. It’s a lovely word to have been used actually, because it combines that sense of astonishment and perhaps learning something new. That’s exactly what we hoped people would feel, and I think that resonates strongly with the young audience. Again, that sense of, “Gosh, there’s a world out here that perhaps we haven’t been so exposed to before.” And at the same time, in a world where a lot of environmental issues are becoming increasingly politicised, you can just see it how it is. There’s not an environmental agenda to the series, but we’re showing issues as they crop up, and as we came across them.
You’ll have seen Christopher Booker in the Telegraph questioning some of the science of the first episode – saying the Arctic ice isn’t in meltdown and that the walrus population is the healthiest it’s been in decades. Can we trust the science in this series?
I’m not going to comment on his piece. What I will say is that each episode has four scientific advisors from the Open University working on it. We also normally have on each episode between two and three other expert scientists helping us make sure that everything we say is as factually accurate as it can be.
And that’s important to the integrity of the Natural History Unit, of the BBC, and of you as programme makers?
Absolutely, especially when you’re working in a world that you don’t understand well and where new discoveries are being made all the time. It’s vitally important that we have the backing of the scientific community, both from a credibility point of view, and also because the only way you can make a series like this is through that collaboration with scientists, because they’re making new discoveries. Also, if we see something we don’t understand, we can take it to scientists and get it analysed. So we’ve actually enjoyed a really close collaboration with scientists all the way through this project, and that’s gone right the way through to scriptwriting.
You’ve also come in for criticism of the music and some of the sound effects. Let’s start with those first. Why is it necessary to add artificial sound, the tusk fish hitting the shell on the rock for instance?
Actually, I have to correct you. We recorded that particular sound for real. We can’t capture every sound under water – it’s impractical if you’re in a submarine and it’s very difficult when you’re on scuba – but one of our series advisors is a sound specialist and he goes under water with a four-way directional hydrophone and makes recordings. He’s been able to advise us on the sound effects in the series to make sure that what we’ve got is representative of what we’re seeing, and it feels true to nature.
What about the soundtrack? There have been lots of complaints that it drowns out the narration and detracts from the images.
Music is part of the language of film, and we’ve always had music in wildlife films because it helps convey part of the story. We’re really delighted with the Hans Zimmer score, and the sensitivity that it brings to many of the sequences, and it’s also a very strong and recognisable theme tune, which is appropriate in this case. So a lot of effort goes into both the composition and the orchestration of the music around that. Our ambition is to create a soundtrack that is immersive and engaging and enhances the film.
So you can’t just turn it down a bit?
There’s a lot going on with narration, with music, with sound, and that’s why you mix it to try to get those levels right and an evenly paced television experience. That takes place in a big music theatre. But what perhaps people don’t know is that we then huddle around the TV in the corner of this huge room, and we sit and we actually listen to the finished film and do the final mix review on a normal television, because it’s all very well doing it in a big music theatre, but at the end of the day this is being made for a television audience, and you need to check that you’ve got everything as right as you can. We absolutely try to get the balance right.
This week you’re immersing us in kelp and sea grass. That sounds like quite a tough sell?
One of the most important things about this episode is the fact that so much oxygen is created by plants in water, and that it’s the green seas, not the blue seas, that actually sustain so much life on the planet. What I love about the film is that it’s like the fairy-tale forests but under water; it’s got that lovely Brothers Grimm feeling to it. It’s a dark and mysterious world.
And the wider world is where you’ll be taking this series next, including China?
We have two Chinese co-producers and it’s exciting for us to be able to get high-quality, wildlife film-making and to reach a new audience. We haven’t had much feedback yet because it’s still early days, but it’s exciting that it’s going into new territories like China, and then it rolls out, as you say, around the world.
Are we talking hundreds of thousands of viewers in China or millions?
It’s definitely millions. It could be very big.
And that’s important, isn’t it, because surely it’s the polluting countries that you want to be getting the message across in – the Americas, the Chinas of this world?
Ocean-related issues are global, to be honest with you. If you drop a bit of plastic in one ocean, it can end up in another, even several oceans away. Ocean-related problems tend to be global issues really. So it’s great for this series to get into every country it can.
The final episode in mid December features Sir David’s personal look at the problems facing our oceans. What can we expect?
David very much presents the whole film. You’ll see him at various points in the film, and he takes us through some of the major issues that are challenges to the ocean today.
Is the tone of his message as forceful as we are ever likely to have heard?
Sir David certainly feels very strongly about the need to address the issues that are there. Plastics is an issue that comes through strongly in this film. The bleaching of coral and the warming seas are also really big issues. But there is a message of hope as well. What we know is that where people take the pressure off the ocean, it bounces back strongly.
Monterey Bay in California is a famous story. This is a bay that was polluted to complete devastation in the 1930s and 40s, that was absolutely over-fished, so the whole wildlife system collapsed, and yet you can go there today and see some of the greatest ocean spectacles on the planet. And there are other anecdotal stories around, off Kenya and Somalia, where because of the piracy in the last decade [and the absence of fishing trawlers], the numbers of big fish have begun to return.
So there really is this sense that the oceans have an incredible capacity to recover; that there are some big challenges out there, but at the same time it’s not too late. We’re probably at a unique moment where, in many ways, we’re the first generation to get the full scale of it and to really understand humanity’s impact, and there’s still a chance to do something about it, and that has to be a positive message, and it has to be an exciting opportunity.