Friday, May 09, 2014

Simple Minds, Sir David, and Sri Lankan Bears

(An old post (from 2006!), republished in celebration of Sir David's 86th birthday on the 8th of May)
Its amazing how a simple tune can evoke a vast store of nostalgia, seemingly from out of thin air.

This morning a song blaring from a distant radio, a typical tune from the mid-80's - I think it was an old hit by Simple Minds - tapped a totally forgotten region of my memory, and suddenly I was back in those old days of questionable hairstyles and garish clothes, surrounded by the sounds of the new romantics as the pop music movement called itself back then.

And there I was, a wonder-struck schoolkid in the heart of the Midlands in the UK, forgetting about my homework and my beloved BMX Chopper, and escaping instead into a world of meerkats and honeypot ants and mountain gorillas. A televised dreamland, made real by the unassuming magic of David Attenborough.
Life on Earth and the subsequent series in the Life trilogy were something of a revelation for me, a series that opened my eyes to the possibilities of the great unknown; that made me realize, even in my early teens, that there were corners of this world that I could never see, and yet there were some that I most certainly would. 

David Attenborough's calm and composed presentation struck home far stronger than any modern-day 'reptile hunter'; compelling me to think further than the shores of England, further than the physical constraints of the tired old elephants of London Zoo.

He made me realize that television could open the doors to the natural world; that TV could bring to life the reasons for environmental conservation in a far more compelling way than dusty old textbooks in dusty old classrooms. That TV could make nature accessible to anyone and everyone.

And so began a somewhat convoluted journey to where I am right now, with still miles to go. Whether I have made bad nature programmes or good, Sir David is directly responsible. I have always aspired to creating television in his approachable and accessible style. 

Even hard science can be translated for the least sophisticated audience, through a simple device called a story. Every story has a thread, that starts at the beginning, weaves the middle, and connects it all to the end.

Sir David: the milestone

I am learning how to tell a good story. I've even stepped in front of the camera a few times to try and bring life to the tale, but in all truth my aspirations of being an Attenborough are much like Golem aspiring to Gandalf - I don't have the white hair and I can't carry off the safari jacket.

But given enough maturing and the considerable weight of experience I may try again. Attenborough is still my milestone.

And so this leads me to my current project, one that began in mid '05 and is scheduled for completion later this year. Its a story that takes me back to Sri Lanka and into the heart of a country I have rediscovered with new eyes. It is also a story that Discovery Networks has taken considerable risks in commissioning, as its central character happens to be the island's most endangered mammal.

Numbering less than 300, Sri Lankan Sloth Bears are something of an enigma. They may as well be ghosts for most of the year, and I would be very surprised if even a quarter of the country's population knew of their existence.

And yet for just a couple of weeks they make themselves known, very briefly. It is this window of opportunity that my story hinges on... and perhaps the reason I often find myself shaking my head and asking a simple question to the world in general, "Why?"

I've had more than a fair share of luck during my years making wildlife shows, but what a way to start my debut with Animal Planet... forever waiting for that fountain of luck to run dry.

In truth however, nature has been kind to us. Inspite of unforseen forest fires and severe droughts, the bears did their disappearing/reappearing trick for us last year. It was still mostly a case of 'blink and you miss them', but when they did choose to oblige us - I can't begin to explain the feelings that raced through my bloodstream. A mixture perhaps, of immense relief, adrenaline and sheer awe.

Again I wanted to add that Attenborough ingredient into the body of the story, but as is often the case, I was reminded once again, that the world has moved on. The kids are more sophisticated, the audience has a limited attention span. The gentleness of 'once upon a time' has been lost in most of the work you'll see on Nat Geo or Discovery these days. Its not their fault, its what the public demands.

I feel a great sense of loss that the 'wonder of it all', the instinctive excitement of pushing aside a leaf and seeing what lies on the other side of the forest... all this will vanish when the David Attenboroughs of this world are no more.

I think sometimes that I was born two or three generations too late for this business. The marvel of wild discovery and exploration is taken for granted on our screens today. There are some gems that crop up amidst the rubble from time to time, but by and large this is the age of unnecessary risk-taking and showmanship and playing up to the camera, with the wilderness playing second fiddle. That should never be the case, and I wonder how long this genre of wildlife television can sustain itself.

So in many ways, the bear story has become a kind of visual 'holy grail' for me. Its important not just professionally, but also because it allows me the opportunity to tell a story about the island of my birth. Just one little story, a tiny fragment of a much larger and wonderfully complex picture - but a story that for once will have an audience that spans the world. This is something I had promised myself somewhat naively as an idealistic teenager.

If the bears do their part, I'm sure we can make something special together. And I'll be sure to put a little of the Attenborough ingredient in there somewhere, just to please that wonder-struck schoolkid, way back when.

Yes, its amazing how a simple tune can evoke such nostalgia...

1 comment:

Sivasothi said...

Wow, this is a very good post! Captures thougghts I had about documentaries andd remnds me why certain grad students are Attenborough fans in such an emotional way - they say he is the reason they are pursuing higher degrees in biology.