The Green Planet 1/5, Sunday 9th January, 7pm, BBC One
I’m going to begin this year with a guilty confession. I wasn’t really looking forward to Sir David Attenborough’s new series. I know that is practically sacrilegious, that everything the Big DA touches turns to gold, and should be treated with the reverence that is normally reserved for the Turin Shroud. But honestly, it’s all about plants. Plants! How interesting can it be?
I mean, animals, sure. Animals are great. They’re cute and cuddly or big and scary. We can anthropomorphise them, and make them into goodies and baddies. I bow to nobody in my love of David Attenborough’s animal programmes – I even did my top ten Attenborough moments for this esteemed website. But you’ll notice that none of those moments feature him standing in front of a bush waxing lyrical about its leaves or whatever. Plants are, frankly, a bit dull.
Well, I watched it anyway, and not for the first time, it turns out I’m an absolute nincompoop of the highest order. This new series is vintage Attenborough, showing the BBC’s Natural History unit at its absolute best. It is, frankly, jaw-dropping – both in terms of the simply astonishing footage shot by incredible, state of the art cameras, and the plants themselves, which are nothing short of remarkable.
The programme begins, appropriately enough, with Sir David standing in front of a Giant Sequoia in California – two titans of nature, undimmed by time and the ravages of age, and both expected to live for several hundred years. (I’m basing this on the fact that Sir David is as sprightly at 95 as he has ever been). Plants, he explains, are the basis of all life, including our own. “We depend upon them for every mouthful of food that we eat, and every lungful of air that we breathe.”
Cue the usual soaring orchestral music and incredible sweeping shots of plant vistas, from rainforest to desert, arctic wilderness to savannah. It’s all ridiculously beautiful, but the real fun is about to start. Because plants, it turns out, are every bit as brilliant, inventive, and even terrifying and bloodthirsty as their animal counterparts.
This first episode is all about rainforests. This seems an appropriate place to start, because even though they cover just a small proportion of the planet’s surface, they are home to half of all known animal and plant species.
Down below the rainforest canopy, only 2% of the sunlight filters through. I once had a holiday in Ireland that was much the same. On the forest floor, an astonishing race is talking place, to see which of the plants can make it out of the murk and into the sunlit uplands above. The time-lapse footage is out of this world. In the end, a balsa tree wins – not surprising, when you can grow 30ft in a single year!
But that’s just the beginning. Over the next hour, one mind-boggling sequence follows another: An enormous underground fungus that communicates with ants ands sends them out to get specific types of leaf for it to consume. It’s like nature’s own version of Deliveroo, only the ants don’t get lost and phone for directions. Trees that respond to leaf cutter ant attacks with chemical warfare. A huge, sinister corpse flower that impersonates rotting carrion in order to procreate. Billions of seedlings produced once a decade by different trees and all released at once, so they’re not all devoured by bearded pigs (yes, really) below. Fungus that glows in the dark with bioluminescent beauty. Flowers that only bloom for seven hours, and then die.
And then, of course, there’s the sequence at the end, showing us how it’s all filmed. As ever, the ingenuity is hard to fathom. And, as ever, the whole thing is a triumph. Bravo!
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Couples Therapy 1/9. Monday 10th January, 9pm, BBC Two
And now for something completely different.
It’s not often that television comes up with a totally new concept. We are swamped with murder mysteries, challenge formats, reality shows, quizzes and cookery, but every now and again, something shiny and new comes along for our delectation. This is just such a show.
Couples Therapy is a nine-part series that follows four couples over 20-weeks of one-hour therapy sessions. It is, of course, American. In Britain, we find shaking hands or exchanging casual greetings a dangerously intimate experience, so the idea of having your innermost secrets, and your worst behaviour, forensically dissected on national television is likely to be somewhat anathema to our rather buttoned-up way of thinking. Not so our American brethren, who seem more than happy to air their dirty linen publicly.
Events are overseen by Dr Orna Guralnik, a dedicated, sensitive and impressively even-handed therapist. Cameras have been set up, unobtrusively, in her office and waiting room, and every nuance, show of affection and of irritation within the couples is captured.
When the documentary started, I had to go back and check the production notes to make sure it wasn’t a drama. This was for two reasons: Firstly, the way it’s shot, with couples filmed on their way to the therapy, or going about their everyday lives at home, all set to music, had the feel of a drama. Secondly, the opening, pre-title scene features a man behaving so badly, it felt certain that it had to be scripted.
Said scene featured Annie and Mau, who have been married for 23 years. Annie is discussing how Mau likes to make a big deal of his birthday, so she spent the week planning an elaborate celebration. Mau decided that he didn’t like what she had planned, so told her the whole thing was cancelled, and instead went to Italy. On his own.
It quickly emerges that Mau is… hold on… I’m going to channel my inner-Dr-Guralnik here and be non-judgemental. You decide. He says: What I want is to have zero responsibility, to have all the sex I want without any work on my part of any kind.” Then there’s this, for good measure: “I could get her to do whatever I want, that’s not what I want. What I want is for her to do whatever I want, without me having to make it happen. You know I want a glass of water before I ask, and it’s there, waiting.”
Of course, it suits the programme’s narrative to have villains, and maybe the programme makers have cut this to make Mau look like an absolute boob. But unless one of the bits they cut was Mau saying “Just kidding, that would be the behaviour of a psychopath,” it’s difficult to find a way back for him.
Other couples’ problems are a touch more nuanced. Elaine and Desean have been married for 11 years. They have a major communication problem. She wants to call him at work 20 times a day. He feels harassed. She feels ignored and neglected, and that he is married to his work.
Lauren and Sarah want different things. Lauren, who is trans, doesn’t feel ready to become a mum, but Sarah is desperate to start a family. Evelyn and Alan, meanwhile, seem to be at the end of the road. When we first meet them, they are three months into therapy, and both seem ready to walk away from each other. Then we go back three months to the day they first walked into the office. Their story, it seems, will be told retrospectively.
This is frank, searingly honest and compelling television, and while the opening episode only touches on the surface of the couples’ problems, we have eight further half-hour episodes to get to know them. It will doubtless be an emotional ride.
The best.. and the rest:
Saturday 8th January
Ant and Dec’s Limitless Win, 8:30pm, ITV: Presumably ITV have high hopes for this new gameshow, if they’re attaching TV royalty to the project. It marks the Geordie duo’s first new TV show in a decade, and features the world’s first limitless TV jackpot. Intriguing.
Secrets of the Royal Palaces, 1/8, Channel 5: A second series of the show that delves into what goes on behind closed doors at Buck House and the other cosy little getaways the Windsors call home. Not my cup of tea, but my mum will doubtless lap it up.
The John Bishop Show, 9:30pm, ITV: The amiable scouse comic returns with a mixture of topical comedy and celebrity chat.
Sunday 9th January
The Killer Nanny: Did She Do It? 1/3, 9pm, Channel 4: 25 years after British nanny Louise Woodward became a household name after she went on trial in the US for the murder of 8-month-old Matthew Eappen, this three-part documentary series, showing on consecutive nights, examines the case in minute detail, starting tonight with the case for the prosecution.
Hotel Benidorm: Sun, Sea and Sangria, 9pm, Channel 5: New documentary series following the lives of staff and guests at the Rio Park Hotel in Benidorm. You know what to expect.
Tuesday 11th January
Wonders of the Border 1/6, 7:30pm, ITV: Sean Fletcher travels along Offa’s Dyke path, along the Welsh-English border. Tonight, his escapades include wild swimming in the River Wye.
Rules of the Game 1/4, 9pm, BBC One: Maxine Peake stars in this drama about an executive investigating events at her company that led to an employee’s brutal death. With a stock floatation looming, will it spell bad news for her business? Co-starring Alison Steadman.
Wednesday 12th January
The Bay 1/6, 9pm, ITV: Return of the popular Morecambe-based police drama. Morven Christie has left the series, so the new lead is Marsha Thomason.
Thursday 13th January
Martin Clunes: Islands of the Pacific, 9pm, ITV: This new series sees actor and occasional travel show presenter Clunes travelling to the remote Pacific islands, starting tonight in French Polynesia where, amongst other jollies, he gets to swim with sharks.
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