Life Story opens with David Attenborough lounging around in the desert with some meerkats. Perfect, this is exactly the sort of thing you want from a BBC nature program, I think, especially one whose first episode promises to be about baby animals taking their ‘first steps’ in the world. I’m watching it while I’m doing the washing up, just about to make myself a cup of tea, not really interested in the meerkats, if I’m honest, but I’m enjoying the cosiness of the thing and the soothing tones of Attenborough’s voice, which has a similar effect on me to that of a large whiskey.
And then come the goslings. That was a one-clause sentence for dramatic effect, yes. What can be so dramatic about some goslings, you ask? If you’ve seen it, you’ll know exactly what I’m on about; if you haven’t, take a minute before you open up iPlayer to remind yourself that, of course, nature isn’t all about baby meerkats frolicking in the sand — it’s about the constant struggle for survival.
We’re in Greenland, in the Orsted Dal valley, where barnacle geese bring their young into the world. Due to the constant threat of predators, they are forced to nest at the top of 400 foot high, vertical cliffs, which are pretty terrifying in themselves, especially in HD. Here are the goslings, four pathetically cute fluff-balls nestled under the wing of mother goose.
The problem is that barnacle geese only eat grass. The fundamental irony of Greenland is that there isn’t actually much grass — especially not on top of huge rock pillars. So, the ‘first steps’ of these babies, whose wings we are told are too undeveloped to work yet, involves following Mum and Dad off the edge of a cliff in search of food.
And, blindly, off they go. I’m standing in the middle of the kitchen still wearing my rubber gloves, staring at my laptop in abject horror as five helpless baby birds base-jump off a cliff. This just isn’t practical, nature, I think, as the chicks rocket towards the ground, wings desperately outstretched, slamming again and again against the edge of the jagged rock face to dramatic music (thanks, BBC). It’s so distressing to watch that I’m actually whimpering by this point. My housemate (who is watching American Horror Story in the next room) has to come in and ask if I’m okay.
Two out of five of the chicks die in the fall (we see it happen!); the two chicks on the ground are visibly shaking, and there is a heart wrenching searching-for-baby-goose scene before third chick emerges from behind a pile of rubble. The little family then hobble off to safety, thank bloody god.
The hits keep on coming. The next ‘life story’, for example, features the birth of some baby praying mantises. They aren’t cute, but they’re sort of beautiful in an alien way, and the camerawork is spectacular. I’m just warming to them when they start eating each other. One of them (the protagonist?) then wins a fight with a massive spider before being eaten by another bigger mantis, possibly its mother. “Praying mantis, after all, are cannibals” says Attenborough, happily.
By mid-way through the program, even the baby meerkat is savagely devouring a huge scorpion. So, Life Story is brutal, it’s honest. But it’s also ridiculously, breathtakingly beautiful, a great deal of which has to do with the quality of the photography; I spend a great deal of it wondering if it isn’t actually just really, really good CGI. Of course it’s not; according to the ‘making of’ it’s just some very big lenses and a lot of waiting around. This, I think, is the magic of Life Story. It’s the sort of camerawork we have come to expect from big-budget blockbusters. The editors work wonders in creating parts of the animal world, seen in more detail than anyone would actual plot lines, narratives, almost characters.
This isn’t just nature watching: it’s a thrilling insight into some of the most dangerous, cut-throat parts of the animal world, seen in more detail than anyone would ever manage to achieve with their own eyes.