Not so frozen planet

Sir David Attenborough’s documentary series Frozen Planet has come under fire after the revelations that images of polar bear cubs being filmed ‘in the wild’ were actually recorded in a Dutch zoo. Whilst his commentary stated that they were being born ‘under snow,’ it has been revealed that the pair of cubs was living at Ouwehands Animal Park in the Netherlands – where one later died. The mother of the cubs is called Huggies, named after her sponsors Kimberley-Clark, the nappy manufacturers. Could this situation be a stronger antithesis to the organic look at nature the series promised?

Attenborough has defended film-makers’ decision to bill images taken of animals in captivity as being in the wild, stating that it would ‘ruin the atmosphere’ had they revealed the true location of the cubs during the episode. Whilst I agree with him to a point, documentaries are intended to educate, and there should be no mistruths in education. It makes a mockery of much of what was said and shown in each documentary – if anyone can film animals in a zoo and claim they are in the wild, what hopes can we have for the future of nature programmes?

Perhaps the worst offence in this entire debacle is that producers did not reveal they were filming parts of the show in captivity in the programme itself, leaving the most dedicated viewers to stumble across the truth in a video on the Frozen Planet website. Buried amongst numerous other clips, those who searched long enough found producer Kathryn Jeffs explaining exactly where the footage was shot, which Attenborough has claimed was for ‘the safety of the animal.’ But given that the show drew in an average of eight million viewers per episode, did they not think it was their duty to inform audiences about how they had achieved these spectacular images? This scandal has damaged what was otherwise one of the most talked about series of a generation, and one which had been the cause of a 300% rise in holidays booked to the South Pole.

It also raises questions about what can be put down to good film-making and what is simply an attempt to conceal the truth. Attenborough believes Frozen Planet to be the former, but this does seem somewhat dubious. Frozen Planet was not intended as a Hollywood blockbuster; rather its function was to show how life truly works in areas of the world the vast majority of the public know little about. To that end, it has let audiences down by pretending to be something it is not. Had they explained that parts of the show were not filmed in the wild, whilst it would have seen marginally less impressive at the time, it wouldn’t have had the same damning effect that these revelations have had. The series has spawned various merchandise including a book and a blu-ray DVD series, but this scandal will most likely damage their success. We should certainly support the making of great nature programmes, but must look critically at those which use dishonest foundations to garner acclaim.

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3 thoughts on “Not so frozen planet

  1. I am afraid that I have to disagree with the notion that Frozen Planet was dishonest. Surely everyone knows that the filming of wild hunters is a dangerous job, especially when it comes down to that of a mother and her pups. In this case, yes the scene was filmed in captivity but that is due to the fact that it would be impossible to film it in the wild. At no point did the commentary say that what we were witnessing was actually taking place in the wild, but was instead telling us what happens in the wild with a dramatisation (something that happens all the time in media. I agree that it may have been misleading to those few who did not realise such a thing cannot be filmed in the wild, but the filming of scenes in the wild are sometimes substituted for those of captivity in cases where it is dangerous or completely impractical. I do believe that a message at the end of the programme explaing this scene was not filmed in the wild would have helped those few,it is just a shame that it has caused such an outrage, at least the BBC had the decency to explain the filming of the scene on the Frozen Planet website.

    1. Hi Benjamin, thanks for your response. I do agree with you for the most part and whilst it might be clear to some that it is too dangerous to film the likes of polar bear cubs being born in the wild, I think that the BBC could have easily explained that to viewers and avoided this mess entirely. Whilst this is not a huge issue compared to the vast majority of other things that go on in the world, the fact that it has caused such outrage does show that people feel that the BBC has been dishonest. Documentaries should never assume people know facts, such as the impossibility of filming cubs being born in the wild, especially when the programme sought to educate people on the matter.

      1. Hi Charlotte, I agree with you there the BBC should not have assumed that viewers would know about the natural world,, as everyone knows assumption is the mother of all f***-ups, but I do believe it has been blown out of proportion. As with alot of complaints these days, the majority of those who are complaining did not watch the programme themselves and are instead jumping on the band wagon of the press, such as the case of Jeremy Clarkson and his ‘strike’ comment (but this is not the time for that one).

        I have to say though that I am impressed with the publicity that this is causing for such a wonderful programme as a lot of people are now watching it.

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