In September 2001, the day before BBC1 launched the natural history series Blue Planet, America was devastated by the terrorist atrocity we now know as 9/11. As we in Britain joined the rest of the world in mourning the loss of life and grieving for a loss of humanity, we turned to the natural world for solace.
The viewing figures for Blue Planet were way beyond our expectations. Yes, the series was beautifully filmed, but there was something much more significant going on.
As a nation we craved refuge from the horror and uncertainty, and for an hour on Wednesday evenings our oceans provided that sanctuary.
Today, I believe the BBC Natural History Unit’s latest series, Planet Earth II, is tapping into a similar sentiment. Of course, there is no single appalling catalyst as there was in 2001, but our concerns for the world, the confusion we have about its direction of travel, are every bit as great.
The planet has rarely felt in greater environmental peril. As I said in the series opening, “Never has the wilderness been as fragile and as precious as it is today.”
Each episode reminds us of just what we face losing if we fail to respond to these challenges. To some extent I believe that the ten million or so viewers who have tuned in each week are reconnecting with a planet whose beauty is blemished, whose health is failing, because they understand that our own wellbeing is inextricably linked to that of the planet’s. It’s a form of two-way therapy.
Of course, the incredible popularity of the series is the result of other factors as well. The proximity to the animals brought about by the latest technology gives us a new and engrossing perspective on the struggles many of them endure to survive. The scale and power of the landscape have never been more vivid – seen in extraordinary ultra-high definition.
The 8pm Sunday evening slot is undoubtedly helpful, too. I’m told that we are attracting a larger than normal number of younger viewers (more 16-to-35-year-olds than The X Factor) and apparently the music of Hans Zimmer in particular is striking a chord with the young. And that pleases me enormously.
It is our environmental legacy that the younger generation of today will inherit; we need them to become the environmental champions of the future. And that’s why television of this type is so important. It isn’t just delivering animals into our homes but transporting us into theirs.
It’s enabled us to see just how full of wonder those habitats are and underlines why we must protect them. Their survival is our survival.
Making this series has been an epic adventure for the production team. We’ve soared among the highest mountains, clambered onto the remotest islands and explored the richest jungles and harshest deserts – nearly four years in the making, with 117 filming trips to 40 countries. It all ends on Sunday with the series finale that is set in our cities.
The urban environment wasn’t covered in the original Planet Earth ten years ago because, as a habitat for wildlife, it wasn’t felt to be significant enough. Today it unquestionably is. More than half the world’s population – almost four billion people – now live in towns or cities.
As we encroach into their world, so animals must find respite in ours. So, while the biggest challenge we face is undoubtedly preserving what’s left of our jungle, mountain, island and desert habitats, those designing our cities must be mindful of the other inhabitants of our planet.
Not just for the benefit of the animals but also for us humans. Urban living is increasingly depriving millions of us from life-enhancing contact with the natural world and that can only be to our detriment. Tune into Sunday’s episode and watch how cities like Singapore have risen to the challenge, and you’ll see what I mean.
The original Planet Earth ten years ago is estimated to have been watched by half a billion people. We’re hopeful that this series will be seen by as many, if not more. Importantly, thanks to a new co-production deal, it will be shown in China, where I hope it will have a significant impact.
My closing remarks in the commentary ten years ago were these: “Our planet is still full of wonders… We can now destroy or we can cherish. The choice is ours.” Sadly, though perhaps predictably, the message today is even more pertinent.
As I say at the end of Sunday’s episode: “It is surely our responsibility to do everything within our power to create a planet that provides a home not just for us, but for all life.”
Planet Earth II concludes 8pm Sunday, BBC1