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.