The battle for survival


TV REVIEW: LifeBBC1, Monday; One to OneRTÉ1, Monday; Panorama: Why Hate Ryanair?BBC1, Monday; The Eleventh HourRTÉ2, Wednesday

‘TO ENSURE the survival of the next generation – ultimately, in nature, that is what life is all about.” If God was looking to hire someone to do a voiceover for his creation movie, I suspect he’d put in a call to David Attenborough’s agent (hell, if God was casting his biopic, Attenborough would surely get the gig). The octogenarian who narrates his breathtaking new 10-part BBC opus, Life, has, over the course of his long career as a broadcaster and naturalist, become the voice of the planet, and in this staggeringly shot series Attenborough’s whispered tones continue to articulate a wondrous world.

Whipping us out of our sagging armchairs and rushing us around every continent on the globe, Lifemoves from tawdry-looking ocean floors (all gaudy, swirling seaweeds and tangerine octopuses flailing around in the disco-ball depths) up into canopies of trees where, in a moment of contemplative camerawork, we saw a diligent mother frog, her baby tadpole adhering to her back, climb a mammoth bark to find a safe leaf pool for her offspring.

Shot over a three-year period, Lifeillustrates the extraordinary lengths to which species will go to stay alive, capturing with almost terrifying clarity the strategies some animals have developed to improve their chances of dinner. Bottlenose dolphins, off the coast of Florida, band together like smart college kids on a spring-break fishing trip, one whipping its tail against the mud flats in concentric circles, creating a wall of sand which panic-stricken fish leap over, straight into the smiling mouths of the flapping dolphin’s waiting mates. Three sullen cheetah brothers weigh up their chances with a blowsy ostrich, like dark-eyed desperadoes sprawled against a bar-room wall. A burly, broad-shouldered little capuchin monkey swaggers down to his nut pile, his tufty fringe slicked back into a Brylcreem quiff, looking like an over-confident Elvis impersonator as he cracks open his carefully dried nut shells with his trusty rock mallet.

I could write about Lifefor the length of this column, but would still struggle to do justice to what an extraordinary achievement it is. “Is this real, is this really happening?” asked my son, ripped from his PlayStation to observe a deceptively sluggish chameleon use its elongated tongue to swat a cocky praying mantis (hewn from the central-casting villainous-insect pile), followed by a leopard seal forensically masticating a chin-strap penguin, and by killer whales playing cat-and-mouse with their seal prey.

That a project of this magnitude is being undertaken at all in these days of cheap, disposable television is a testament to Attenborough’s standing in the industry. Do yourself a favour and set the recorder – God knows when, or indeed if, we’ll see work of this quality again.

APART FROM one or two caked rhinos dragging around in the scorched African mud (oh, and, of course, great swathes of Antarctic ice melting at an unprecedented rate), Lifedid not dwell on the environmental cost of global warming. In many ways, it didn’t have to, as every shot of the animal kingdom’s complex and intricate survival strategies hinted at the darker possibility of the species’ own destruction. In this week’s edition of One to One, the series in which various Irish journalists have in-depth conversations with one kind of genius or another, RTÉ’s environment correspondent, Paul Cunningham, sat in an uncomfortable-looking chair opposite another sage of our times, author and scientist James Lovelock.

Lovelock – benign-looking, cardigan-clad and now in his 90s – was the man who discovered that our deodorant sprays and leaking refrigerators were punching a hole in the ozone layer. Since then, he has been considered a leading figure in the development of environmental awareness, and his “Gaia hypothesis” has earned him the status of “amateur prophet”, as he describes himself. For the lucky few of you who have managed not to take in this hypothesis, please allow me to ruin your weekend.

Gaia theory (in simplistic, hysterical layman terms) basically states that the world is a self-regulating organism which has got cheesed off with being over-populated and abused, and which is currently attempting to move itself into a kind of hot age.

Despite Lovelock’s eerie charm, this was a disquieting interview. He once owned a cottage in west Cork, and forecast cheerily that Ireland would survive the worst of his predicted catastrophes (flooding, drought, food shortages) and that we and the inhabitants of New Zealand may in fact find ourselves to be the last two dancing partners on the globe. Lovelock, with the balmy geniality of an ice-cream vendor, calculated that the current global population would be reduced to maybe one billion, or even a few hundred million. Anticipating the mass migration of populations from other parts of the world, Lovelock said, through his pearly smile: “You will have to make agonising decisions – the future of the human race may depend on it.” Oh God, I was so depressed I could barely stand up. I lay on the couch trying to do the maths (never my strong point), and between Lovelock’s hypothesis and newspapers telling us that our children will live until they are 100 years old, I was besieged with visions of my seven-year-old living in some kind of hive-pod at 107 while, outside the scorched door, vestiges of destitute humanity crawled towards him across the infernal desert that used to be called Europe.

AND I TELL YOU something, Michael O’Leary didn’t help matters either. Panorama, a strand whose theme tune sometimes has more kick than its content, decided, in its dubious wisdom, to produce yet another report on Ryanair, in a programme rather incautiously subtitled Why Hate Ryanair?. You truly don’t need a précis of the content: suffice it to say that reporter Vivian White, a sonorous and humorous gentleman with a macintosh and a fluffy microphone, unearthed some predictably outrageous “no-frills” practices, such as Ryanair pilots paying for their own bottled water, and cabin staff being on commission for the cheese sandwiches they offload on to their exhausted but upright clients (Ryanair seats don’t recline).

White then attempted to interview Michael O’Leary himself, only O’Leary didn’t want an edited interview, he wanted an unedited monologue and would only oblige the furry microphone if he received an assurance that his words wouldn’t be cut and pasted by BBC sensibilities. Seizing the opportunity presented by an uncritical camera, the untrammelled O’Leary then gave White a fusillade of fuselage data to chew on: 200 aircraft in the air, 70 million customers per annum, profits of more than €100 million last year. O’Leary’s concluding point, before disappearing into the car park with a victorious flurry, was that more people fly Ryanair than watch Panorama.

Talk about survival of the fittest: O’Leary makes Attenborough’s cold-eyed cheetahs look like glove puppets. He isthat clever little capuchin monkey cracking open the aviation nut with his very own anvil and mallet, and no old-school reporter is going to faze him. “Shot through with ruthlessness like a piece of seaside rock” was how one commentator described him.

“He’s not in the business to be loved,” observed another aviation industry expert, his tongue firmly fastened to the inside of his cheek, having made its way there without the benefit of strip-lighting.

So, anyone for a one-cent ticket to Malmo?

Get back: The Beatles v Frank Hall in Fanning's Fab Four fandango

Dave Fanning is back on the box with a new series of the superb The Eleventh Hour, kicking off with a two-part special on The Beatles, who are draped all over the cooler end of the box these days, given that Abbey Road was number one in the album charts pretty much all over the world exactly 40 years ago.

Alongside archival footage of Fanning’s interviews with Paul McCartney (right) and George Martin, the programme also gleefully unearthed an awful interview with the Fab Four by the late Frank Hall on the occasion of their one visit to Dublin. Hall’s barely disguised irritation (both with the band and with the aircraft taking off throughout the interview), combined with a spectacular lack of musical nous (preferring to talk about his interviewees’ identical fringes), made for nostalgically entertaining viewing. But even more fun was Hall’s interrogation of a bunch of wan young girls in decorous headscarves and what appeared to be their mammys’ coats as they waited outside the Adelphi to collect their tickets for the show.

“What do you like about them?” barked Hall at one of the flimsy girls. “Their haircuts or their music?”

“Both,” she said. “I just love them.”

“And what about you?” Hall somewhat condescendingly asked another obedient female fan.

“Oh, I don’t like them at all. I’m just here for the Helen Shapiro tickets.”

Ah . . . takes you back.