A nature documentary doesn’t need a blowsy accompaniment to beautiful photography

"Lovely pictures speak for themselves - ditch the yak track," says Alison Graham

Sometimes it’s fun to imagine a television narration to my own life, to hear a sonorous voice playing in my ears as I sit down to write a column. Though of course that’s not how it would emerge on screen; it would sound so much more lace-covered. I would be “clutching a delectable writing instrument, the conduit of my dreams [my pen] as I gazed across the bosky urban landscape before brewing a life-giving liquid [looked out of the window at the park opposite and made a cup of coffee]”. Then “my artist’s soul would let loose its bounty” [I’d start writing].


Natural history documentaries are particularly adept at these bulbous, overblown narrations. Just listen to actor Joseph Fiennes in The Great British Year (Wednesday BBC1), it’s like being smothered by a chintz tablecloth. Apart from the title, The Great British Year is rather lovely (The Great British Bake Off has much to answer for in this flowering of titular patriotism… what next, The Great British BBC 10 o’Clock News?). Just lots and lots of pretty, beautifully filmed flowers blooming, chicks chicking and nature doing what it does when the seasons change. It doesn’t need garlanding; it’s visual poetry.

Yet the narration is aural buttercream. It doesn’t snow in The Great British Year, no. Instead, “a giant white duvet covers the landscape”. Spring isn’t just spring, it’s much more splendid than that: “Every year the British landscape undergoes an extraordinary three month transformation into an oasis of abundance.” This begins on 21 March. Or rather, “The starting gun is a crucial planetary trigger, the spring equinox.” This is after “the country has been under winter’s cloak for six months”. Things don’t just grow and change, “a miracle happens”. For the pretty emperor dragonfly, summer “is a deadly mix of hunting or being hunted” by a bird of prey, or rather its “nemesis”. Come on, it’s an emperor dragonfly, not Beowulf. It’s nature, this is what happens every day, and has done since we tottered out of the primeval swamp (oh God, even I’m at it now, it must be catching).

A nature documentary as lovely as The Great British Year doesn’t need a blowsy accompaniment to its sharply beautiful photography, which is a feast in itself. I loved watching fussy breeding shags on the Farne Islands, mincing around with nesting materials in their beaks, and the delicate courtship ritual of sea horses. It certainly doesn’t need the kind of archness that results in shots of a dappled village pitch accompanied by “the field of play is being carefully prepared for that most eccentric of summer activities, cricket”. Why is cricket eccentric? Playing cricket while dressed as a parrot, now that’s eccentric, but just playing cricket? No. Still, we learn that the groundsmen “keep the pitch as smooth as a billiard table”. Or as smooth as a cricket pitch, perhaps?

Give me a Break

Let’s get this out in the open. I haven’t seen Breaking Bad, apart from the occasional early episode. There, I’ve said it. One day, I’ll get round to it, I promise. I’ll spend a whole weekend watching episodes back to back but at the moment, no. So please don’t be the next person to ask, “Have you seen Breaking Bad?,” as people used to ask of other, cultish, little- watched series like The Wire and The Sopranos. All of you who have seen every episode of Breaking Bad, feel free to discuss it among yourselves for as long as you like. It’s your little club and I’m sure you’re very happy together. But stop trying to make me a member.