Frozen Planet: Why we can still trust David Attenborough

Terry Payne, who reports on natural history for Radio Times, says it's time to stop the criticism of BBC wildlife film-makers


In 1995 David Attenborough made a series called The Private Life of Plants. You might remember it. Stunning images of plants in their natural habitat as well as remarkable film that gave a new sense of drama to the life cycle of the plant. Much of that time-lapse photography was filmed in a converted shed in Oxford, though we didn’t notice the joins.


Three years later, Attenborough presented us with The Life of Birds. Again we marvelled at the courtship rituals observed in the wild. Yet did we worry that the macro photography that helped inform our understanding of these beautiful creatures was shot under controlled conditions back in the UK? Almost certainly not.

So why the fuss about the polar bear birthing sequence in Frozen Planet?

First we should start with a bit of clarification. The spark that lit the flames was created by a crucial piece of misreporting of what Attenborough actually said in his commentary. The Daily Mirror story that spawned the media outpouring claimed he had declared: “But on these side slopes beneath the snow new lives are beginning.” The key word here being “these”. It locates the birth of the cubs to a den beneath the feet of the cameraman. And that would have been misleading and wrong. And the agitation of the critics would have been justified.

But what Attenborough actually said in his commentary was… “But on lee-side slopes, beneath the snow, new lives are beginning.” So it’s a piece of behavioural observation general to all polar bears. Attenborough had, as you’d expect, chosen his words with great care. They were explicitly and deliberately generic.

So the criticism boils down to whether we the viewer need to be told every time a wildlife film-maker tries to retain the momentum of the storytelling by jumping from an outside shot to a sequence that, because of its impossible-to-film nature, had to be re-created.


David Attenborough is adamant we don’t. In short, he acknowledges that he’s in the business of informing through the medium of entertainment. “It’s not falsehood, and we don’t keep it secret either,” he says of this particular sequence. It is a bit of a high-wire act and ultimately it comes down to a matter of trust. While we may not feel generously disposed towards all TV programme-makers, surely David Attenborough is someone in whom we CAN trust.