Life Story – review: ‘Terrifying, mesmerising and very, very sad’

Yes, we’ve seen baby geese and meerkats before – But David Attenborough’s tale of our struggle through life is a story worth hearing any number of times

A meerkat pops out of a hole, does a bit of meerkatting, checks the coast is clear. Ooh, Attenborough’s here, again, reclining on the South African dust. Very sprightly for 88, Sir David. Come and say hello, other meerkats, kid meerkats, this one’s OK. Proper legend in fact.

This story – Life Story (BBC1), about creatures’ struggle through life, in order to procreate and keep their species going – is not one that hasn’t been told. By Sir David himself of course, many times. But perhaps he’s now at a stage in his own life when mortality assumes extra significance and poignancy. Plus there are different ways of telling any story, and this is such a big one, there are any number of new ways through it.

I’m not talking about the meerkats; I’m a bit bored of them to be honest, even baby meerkats (episode one is called First Steps, ahhh). Flood the meerkat dot com.

No, Greenland is where it’s at – the remote Orsted Dal valley where (blistering) barnacle geese choose to bring their young into the world. At the very top of 400ft vertical cliffs. WHAT! WHY? Well, obviously to keep them out of the way of predators, but wouldn’t, say 20ft up, have been enough? How high can a frigging fox jump?

Anyway, these adorable little goslings (Ryan, plus four siblings) don’t know anything different, having never known or been anywhere apart from the top of a 400ft vertical rockwall. And there are lessons to learn, from their parents (Claire and Mahatma). Day one then is all about fluffing out and staying warm. Day two: bonding, though don’t get too close to those siblings mind, to avoid disappointment and sadness the following day. Because day three’s activity is… base-jumping.

Except this is necessity, just part of growing up, not adrenaline sport. Barnacle geese eat only grass, of which there is none up on their rock pillar (or anywhere else as far as I can see, this country was named by a sarcast). They won’t learn to fly for weeks, they need to eat now. There’s only one way down.

Falling falling, tiny balls of young life, wings (ha, like they work) outstretched, inches from the jagged rock. Then bam, hitting the cliff, tumbling in the air, and again, bam. So they’re wrapped in quality duvets, and they’re light, but they’re still falling pretty bloody fast (and unlike human base-jumpers, they don’t carry parachutes). Actually I’d like to have known a bit about the physics of it, momentum at impact, terminal velocity of a barnacle gosling etc. Terminal in more way than one: of the five, only three make it. Where’s Ryan? RYYYYYAAAANNN!

It’s terrible and terrifying and mesmerising, and so very very sad. Nature I know, but nature can be such an ass, and God a mean bastard. I’ve got a young offspring of my own here as it happens, not able to walk yet, but hey, guess what, your next bottle’s on the other side of this motorway I’m afraid son, and you’re on your own, good luck.

It’s not just about the meerkats and the baby geese. There are those albatrosses that learn to fly by flying into the open mouths of laughing tiger sharks, but they’ve been on TV a lot recently. And a young humpback whale on its own perilous journey north for food, also chased by sharks. But they can’t really be First Steps can they? And a young mantis, getting attacked by just about everything… oops, and then eaten, by its own father, possibly. But it’s hard to become emotionally involved with a mantis, with eyes like that. Even Sir David can’t quite hide his amusement, there’s a smile in his voice as he narrates the mantis’s demise.

No, it’s the base-jumping goslings that people are going to be talking and oh-my-Godding about this morning. Because of the novelty and the beauty and the horror. Then there’s further goose-tragedy in the Life Story Diaries section at the end. You know the bit at the end where you find out how they filmed it and meet the crew (affable posh chaps who say “crikey” a lot because that’s all they can say now that they go on the telly too).

Another family of jumpers, their fall obscured by the cliff so they don’t even make it onto the main part of the show, is set upon by a fox (Emilia). I know she’s got her own foxling to feed. But hell, after surviving that jump, to then get eaten, immediately. All of them. Noooooo!


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Attenborough and the Giant Dinosaur review: Sir David at 90 – a man with a love of nature deep in his bones
Britain’s greatest natural historian is overjoyed as a 100 million-year-old titanosaurus is unearthed in Patagonia. Plus: James May’s Cars of the People

Sam Wollaston

25, Jan, 2016 @7:20 AM

Article image
Blue Planet II review: to an Octopus's garden in the shade, for a fight
David Attenborough’s underwater world is always full of surprising wonders and this episode, Green Seas, is the best yet

Sam Wollaston

27, Nov, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough review – a heavy message but plenty of sharks
In the final episode, Sir David strikes the perfect balance between educating us about climate change and showing us extraordinary creatures, such as the shark that can walk on land. Plus, Norwegian thriller Occupied

Sam Wollaston

14, Jan, 2016 @7:10 AM

Article image
Wild Isles review – David Attenborough’s last hurrah makes for unmissable TV
The broadcasting legend takes a lovely, unparalleled look at the majestic wildlife of the UK and Ireland. If anyone can stop its terrifying destruction, it’s him

Rebecca Nicholson

12, Mar, 2023 @8:00 PM

Article image
Dynasties review: A leader called David who is ever fearful of a coup – remind you of anything?
The opening episode of David Attenborough’s new series follows the power struggles within a troop of chimpanzees and reveals just how little divides us from our primate cousins

Lucy Mangan

11, Nov, 2018 @9:30 PM

Article image
The Hunt review – spectacle, excitement and the thrill of the chase
The first of the David Attenborough-narrated wildlife series shows how tough it is for predators to land a kill. It’s tense, emotional and beautifully filmed

Sam Wollaston

02, Nov, 2015 @7:09 AM

Article image
Blue Planet II review: the ocean as you've never seen it before
Bird-eating fish, surfing dolphins, rafts of sea otters … there are some extraordinary things going on under the sea, as David Attenborough’s brilliant new series reveals

Sam Wollaston

29, Oct, 2017 @9:00 PM

Article image
Hawking: Can You Hear Me? review – a startling, harrowing look at Stephen’s secret life
This intimate portrait of genius physicist Stephen Hawking shows the true toll of his physical decline on his family, via revealing interviews with his first wife and children

Lucy Mangan

20, Sep, 2021 @9:50 PM

Article image
Educating Greater Manchester review – new terrifying, inspiring tales from the chalkface
At a Salford school, once the worst in the country, heartwarming friendships are formed and the pupils must come to terms with a terror attack

Sam Wollaston

01, Sep, 2017 @5:59 AM

Article image
Inside the Animal Mind – TV review
Chris Packham, Sir David Attenborough's heir apparent, puts the cool in cagoule in this fascinating blend of science and spectacle, writes Sam Wollaston

Sam Wollaston

29, Jan, 2014 @7:00 AM