Predictably, David Attenborough’s new series Africa is utterly great. Better than great. This first episode is about the Kalahari desert and its inhabitants, and the four years of research and filming has produced some truly amazing sequences.
Although there’s nothing which compares with the spectacular footage, Attenborough’s magic is, as ever, found in the storytelling of his voiceovers – the way each sequence becomes a little tale somehow relatable and endearing. There’s just something irresistible about Attenborough’s gentle narration of his animal fables, particularly with this series’ music choices (casting two giraffes in a spaghetti western standoff was a stroke of bizarre genius). More convincingly than ever, Africa gives an unnervingly human quality to its subjects, and endows them with reactions and emotions that are somehow utterly plausible. Suddenly meerkats can be disgruntled. Leopards lethargic. Rhinos flirtatious. Giraffes arrogant. Giant horrible black wasps, well, even Grandpa Attenborough can’t redeem them. But they are very good at digging.
The show delivers a medley of anthropomorphic mini-dramas, and the audience, as ever, has to make big choices about who to root for in the animal-offs which form the backbone of the show: do you plump for Plucky Teen Leopard? Or Cute Baby Deer? Do you take the (pseudo-)moral high ground and root for the weak or the cute? Or have you given in to your Colosseum instinct, sitting on the edge of your sofa baying for blood?
This episode saw a new narrative emerge, and with its innovation came a new, teen-movie style dilemma: the Rhino love triangle. Do you back beefcake Channing-Tatum-Rhino, or the scrawny one with a ‘kooky’ sense of humour, arriving to compete for the girl amusingly dressed as an antelope? After the female lead is successfully wooed by the horned Michael Cera, there is an unfortunate sexual failure: the voiceover lilts, “a girl can only put up with so much” as she feigns sleep to avoid the awkward situation.
Attenborough’s animal fables present moral dilemmas we have grown up with: you vaguely feel that the predator is the baddie, but maturely accept the odd death of prey as necessary to survival/Circle of Life/something to do with biomass – he never really gets into the science of it all. However, this episode reveals the single most horrible and unambiguous baddie in Attenborough history: the armoured ground cricket. If it’s not enough that it is hideous, armoured and disturbingly giant, as well as squirting its own blood as a weapon, there is always the fact that it is grimly intent on eating (bird) babies and feasting cannibalistically on the not yet-dead bodies of its own comrades-in-horridness. Cheers all around as the baby birds survive the attack.
We also know exactly who we’re rooting for in this episode’s giraffe-battle. We’re backing the old bull and David knows it: ‘Is this the end of his reign?’ Not even close, if this episode is any thing to judge by.