BBC could make Planet Earth III, says producer

Broadcaster would be ‘crazy to count out’ another series after huge success of Planet Earth II, narrated by David Attenborough

It has become one of the few feelgood moments of 2016, a weekly instalment of delight that has attracted more than 12 million viewers every week.

As Planet Earth II draws to its conclusion on Sunday, the producer of the spectacular wildlife series has hinted that the BBC could return with a third instalment – though it won’t be any time soon.

Mike Gunton told the Guardian that the broadcaster would be “crazy to count out” making Planet Earth III in future, given the enormous popularity of the programme.

However, he added, “we would also be crazy to say it will be here in three years’ time or even five years’ time”. Gunton, who is also creative director of the BBC’s natural history unit, said one of the reasons for the series’ success is that “it does feel the right length of time to revisit the original conceit”, a decade after the original Planet Earth was screened in 2006.

BBC bosses have been thrilled by the huge audiences watching the programme, which is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, on Sunday evenings on BBC1 and via iPlayer. More than 2 million of the 12 million total weekly UK audience are in the prized 16-34 age range, meaning the programme has attracted more young adult viewers than The X Factor.

A desert lion hunts a giraffe in Planet Earth II
A desert lion hunts a giraffe in Planet Earth II. Photograph: Screen Grab/BBC

It has also been an enormous hit internationally, where it has already been screened in several countries and sold to air in many more. In China, only a few days after launching on an online service, the first two episodes and their accompanying trailers had been viewed 61m times on the digital platform Tencent, while a short clip from the first episode, featuring hatchling iguanas being chased by racer snakes in the Galapagos islands, has attracted 84m views on the Chinese social site Weibo alone.

In the US, where the series will be broadcast next year, the clip was featured by the comedian Ellen deGeneres as a message of hope following the presidential election: “That little baby iguana got away, and we’re going to do that,” she told viewers of her eponymous show. “If you feel there are snakes coming at you from every direction … No matter what your snake is, there is hope for your little iguana.”

Gunton said he was “slightly scratching [his] head” to explain the series’ success, though Attenborough’s involvement – “he’s above a national treasure, he’s almost deified now” – was obviously central to it. “The stars have obviously aligned in a very unusual way. Obviously I would like to hope it’s the quality of the programmes, but I also think this is a kind of moment. You get a sense from talking to people that they have been worried about the world, and this is an opportunity to see some of the wonders of the world and perhaps take their minds off that.”

One key factor was the sheer resources dedicated to the project, with six producers each given more than three years to work on a single hour of television. Projects on this scale “just take that long”, said Gunton. “Part of it is the sheer logistical necessity of getting people from A to B. If you are going to spend a month or six weeks filming in Siberia, and then you have to get to Namibia, it physically takes you a long time.

“Also, it takes an enormous amount of time to research it. You can’t just go and look on Wikipedia. Often the stuff we film has not been published, it’s stuff we hear about through word of mouth. So it’s a huge amount of resources, but it’s the only way it can be done.”

He described Sunday night’s final episode, which for the first time in a landmark BBC series focuses on cities as a wildlife habitat, as “one of the most fantastic and thought-provoking films we’ve done for years”. Though the landscapes of New York City, Mumbai and Singapore are familiar, the episode contains some of the most remarkable footage of the series, including a nocturnal hunt by urban leopards while nonchalant teenagers amble by, and an astonishing sequence from a town in southern France featuring pigeons being hunted by giant Wels catfish – a river bottom-dwelling fish that has adapted only within the last decade to stalk and seize pigeons from shallow riverbanks.

Fredi Devas, the producer of the cities episode, said it had been incredibly difficult to track down stories for the episode, because in many cases urban wildlife had barely been studied by researchers. “The other thing about cities is they change so fast,” he said. A promising lead about a bear that had learned to push wheelie bins into a quiet, unlit car park before scavenging from them had to be abandoned after the restaurant it was raiding put clamps on the bin – “and it was suddenly all over. So you have to be very reactive.”

The episode has a powerful conservation message, and includes moving footage of hatching turtles, confused by electric lights, making their way not to the nearby sea but on to roads and into drains where they perish in their hundreds. “It would be naive to make a film about urban wildlife that only said, ‘Isn’t this a great new habitat for wildlife?’, because for so many animals it has created so much suffering,” said Devas.

So you think you know David Attenborough?

All other cherished creatures aside, there is one rare beast that is particularly precious to the BBC, namely the now 90-year-old Attenborough. Gunton acknowledged that natural history programming would inevitably change when Attenborough finally opted to pack up his safari hat, but cautioned against making assumptions about when that would be. He recalled his first departmental meeting after joining the natural history unit in 1987, when “the head of department said: ‘So, first on the agenda: a replacement for David Attenborough. We need to think about who is going to take over his mantle.’

“That was almost 30 years ago. And if you had any unit meeting today you would probably ask the same question, and you would probably also have the same answer. Which is that you can’t [replace him], and it’s almost pointless trying to.

“We love working with him and I think he loves working with us, and we want that to last as long as possible. When he decides he doesn’t want to do it any more, we will have to rethink how we make these programmes – because you can’t replace him.”


Esther Addley

The GuardianTramp

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