CHRISTOPHER STEVENS reviews the weekend’s TV: Warm yourself up with David Attenborough’s frozen frogs

A Perfect Planet

Rating:

The Great

Rating:

 

When it’s cold enough outside to make a snowman shiver, the lyrics of Flanders and Swann best sum up the season: ‘Freezing wet December, then . . . Ruddy January again!’

A Perfect Planet may be the most technically stunning David Attenborough show yet

The antidote to hypothermia is to watch stunning film of animals and people even colder than you are — like the musk ox in Ellesmere Island, close to the North Pole, in A Perfect Planet (BBC1).

Their shaggy fur was crusted with ice. So was the beard of cameraman Rolf Steinmann, who pulled down his mask to reveal an icicle hanging off his beard. The mask wasn’t to protect against Covid: it was to stop his nose from falling off.

The cold was so intense that, as the ‘behind-the-scenes’ sequence showed, the film crew’s drone froze. They thawed it with a hairdryer, but the camera operator’s fingers were too numb to work the controls.

Under those circumstances, the low-light aerial shots of polar mountains looked even more incredible. So many sequences from this series are equally superb: it may be the most technically stunning Attenborough show yet.

The microscopic camera work, zooming in on fig wasps two millimetres long and picking out the hairs on the backs of Saharan silver ants, was especially remarkable.

Meanwhile, the musk ox were keeping warm by fending off a wolf pack. Great clouds of steam rose from their nostrils as they snorted angrily and stomped their hooves. 

Wisely, the wolves decided to chase some Arctic hares instead — a great herd of them, hundreds lolloping across the snow like snowballs with legs.

Microscopic camera work picking out the hairs on the backs of Saharan silver ants was especially remarkable

Ethereal and ghostly as this looked in a twilight that lasts for weeks, at the end of six months of night above the Arctic Circle, all these animals were enjoying a heatwave compared to the wood frogs.

These amphibians are hard as nails, in every sense. In winter, they freeze solid. Their blood turns to ice and their hearts stop. According to producer Huw Cordey, in his book to accompany the series, if you drop a frozen wood frog it makes a ‘clink’ like a stone.

When the sun finally comes out, it takes the wood frog seven hours just to get some feeling back into its webbed toes. I’ll never complain about our central heating again.

Debut of the weekend:

Who was that young sous-chef glimpsed on Paul Sinha’s TV Showdown (ITV), working alongside Marco Pierre White in the Eighties? He shyly muttered, ‘Yes,’ twice. He’s hardly shy now: it was Gordon Ramsay.

Empress Catherine of All the Russias (Elle Fanning) was discovering that it doesn’t pay to complain, in The Great (C4). The poor little snowflake found this difficult, because she’s a modern young woman and believes whingeing is her human right.

Her husband, Emperor Peter, hasn’t got the hang of that most Millennial of skills, being ostentatiously kind. This is odd, because his best mate Grigor is forever asking ‘Are you OK?’ and giving him little pep talks to lift his mental health.

Other characters mooch around the palace saying ‘How’s that working out?’ or ‘You’re really doing this, then?’ and ‘Good luck with that’. The show’s creator Tony McNamara apparently learned everything he knows about sarcastic wit from Twitter.

But there’s much more to the script than 21st-century cliches. It’s swilling with foul language, too, F-words and C-words in every exchange, so that all these supposed aristocrats sound alike. This is meant to be a comedy about status and snobbery. But differences dissolve when everyone, male or female, swears like a squaddie in barracks.

Several incidents were self-consciously nasty. A banquet was served with the severed heads of enemy soldiers staring up from platters. Peter urged his guests to poke their eyes out.

That image lost its power to shock, because McNamara boasts that most of the ‘history’ is made up. If we don’t know where the fiction ends, none of it matters.

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