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

First the last part of Great Barrier Reef with David Attenborough (BBC1) – the Difficult Final Episode of a natural history documentary, the one about the future, with The Message. The reef is under attack, from typhoons, from crown-of-thorns starfish, most of all from us, of course. In 30 years, half the coral has disappeared. How long before we lose it altogether and what would be the consequences of that, not just for the creatures that call it home, but for the entire planet? (Answers, in short: not long and dire).

Sir David meets the people doing their best to protect it, the scientists trying to breed a new kind of coral that can keep up with our messing and is more tolerant of us and our man-warmed seas. It’s important – more important than anything else, the most important story in the world – but is men and women in white coats what I want from a BBC wildlife doco with Sir David A about one of the planet’s great natural spectacles? Or do I want more tiger sharks, minke whales and manta rays, mantis shrimps and wobbegongs? Plus baby turtles flipperty-flopping down the beach and scuttling into the waves, then returning, bigger and wiser, 40 years later to the very same beach. And a young lean David in black and white and 1950s swimwear, flopping in; then returning to the same beach, rounder, wiser and knighted, nearly 60 years later.

It’s the problem with anything to do with the environment and climate change on TV: how to do it in a way that engages and entertains, doesn’t feel too much like homework. The solution here is to give us sharks as well as the men and women in white coats. Not great whites, but a thing called an epaulette shark which has a trick: it can walk, on land. Just when you thought it was safe to stay on the beach … OK, so it’s not so big, but with a bit of genetic engineering and imagination it could wriggle its way into a bad dream or a horror film. And then there’s the guard crab – again, not so big, but it has massive crab balls for its size, fearless when taking on those pesky crown-of-thorns starfish.

The homework is interspersed with porn, in other words, like little rewards. And it works, keeps us amused and entertained as well as reminding us that without the men and women in white coats there won’t be any big-bollocked crabs or cute turtles or porn sharks or anything at all for very much longer.

David – today’s rounder Sir David (in colour!) – gets to go down in his yellow submarine again. And he told us of his life, in the land of submarines … They missed a trick there, not involving Ringo on the soundtrack. Anyway, down there – right down there, 300m into the dark – there’s a lovely encounter with a big old fish. They look at each other through the glass, the deep-water grouper and the old man. Sir David imitates its wavy fins with his fingers. “Hello,” he says, adopting a deeper deep-water grouper voice. “Why he’s down here, what he’s looking for, who knows?” The fish is probably saying the same.

The diary bit at the end is nice as well, about how they filmed the walking epaulette shark. It’s not just David and the little shark on the reef at low tide, of course. There are camera and sound people, producers and directors, experts and guides, with all their equipment. Including a chair for Sir David; well, he is nearly 90. We don’t see him using it unfortunately, but I can picture him sitting on it as the tide comes in, a wise white-haired old man apparently sitting on a chair on the surface of the ocean, miles from anywhere. Yeah, God, basically. While below him the waters bring forth abundantly great whales and every moving creature that hath life … Well, not so abundantly. So listen up, to the dude in the chair, before it’s too late.

There are more dangerous consequences of climate change in the 10-part Norwegian thriller Occupied (Sky Arts), based on an idea by Jo Nesbø. It’s the near future, the world is in energy-crisis hell, nothing’s coming out of the Middle East any more because of what’s happening there, and the US has gone it alone. After a devastating hurricane, Norway’s idealistic leader stops oil and gas production to concentrate on Thorium energy … which Russia is not happy about, so in she goes.

Far fetched? Trouble in the Middle East; an uncertain future for energy production and the environment; military intervention of a near neighbour by Russia? Ridiculous ideas …

This is the alternative, of course, to sharks and David Attenborough, for making climate change thrilling and engaging. Global conflict, bold kidnappings, helicopters in moody northern skies, sexy Scandinavians … Yes, I think that works as well.


Sam Wollaston

The GuardianTramp

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