TV blog: Planet Earth II

Benjie Goodhart / 03 November 2016

Do not miss Planet Earth II, urges our TV critic. It is utter perfection.

Planet Earth II, Sunday November 6th, 8pm, BBC One

Every now and again there is a programme so wonderful it just about defies description. Welcome to Planet Earth II.

Right from the first moment, featuring a hot air balloon, some majestic, snow-capped peaks, a swirling, triumphant score, and the world’s favourite nonagenarian, this is utter perfection.

This six-part series is, essentially, telling the same stories that the first Planet Earth told us a decade ago. But since then, technology has changed – and so has the world. This opening episode deals with the planet’s islands, which means there’s plenty of opportunity to look at gorgeous beaches and coral reefs, and think “Wow I’d like to be there (but ideally not being trampled by 50 million red crabs or attacked by acid-squirting ants).”

Read our interview with Sir David Attenborough

It’s got everything. There’s romance, in the form of an amorous three-toed pygmy sloth racing to   find a mate, occasionally even exceeding glacial speeds. He might want to do some personal grooming before he meets his ladyfriend, though – no male should have nails like Joan Collins. There is, of course, violence. The Komodo Dragon is one of nature’s most magnificently awful beasts, a terrifying, lumbering, drooling prehistoric monster. This one wants to find a mate as well – good luck, with a face like that – but he has a male rival, which means violence. The lady dragon looks on, presumably sizing up which one of these considerable evils is the lesser. Mind you, she’s no Charlize Theron herself.

There’s gripping footage of volcanos. Mind-boggling facts (the marine iguana can hold its breath for half an hour). Awe-inspiring heroism, in the form of chin-strap penguins, dicing with death every day to feed their young. There’s the enchanting dance of a pair of reunited sheerwaters, who mate for life and spend six months of the year apart. Which may be why they’re able to mate for life…

And then there is without a doubt the scariest wildlife footage I have ever seen. It literally brought me out in goosebumps. If there is a more sinister creature in the world than the racer snake, I don’t want to meet it. The images of whole battalions of them chasing down their prey is simply jaw-dropping.

Mind you, the whole programme is jaw-dropping. If this series doesn’t win a clutch-load of Baftas, I’m resigning my membership of the Academy. It won’t mean much, because I’m not actually a member in the first place, but chinstrap penguins aren’t the only animals capable of selfless acts of heroism.

60 Days in Jail, Thursday 10th November, 10pm, Channel 4

You probably haven’t been to Clark County Jail. I’m, making assumptions here, but I‘m guessing the Saga readership isn’t made up of a significant number of the criminal fraternity of Jeffersonville, Indiana. Put it this way - you don't want to go there. Not in a “their Tiramisu was too sweet and sea view room overlooked the pool” sort of a way. More of an “I don’t want to be killed by a bloke with a swastika tattoo on his forehead” way. It ain’t purdy.

The facility, which holds 500 inmates, is run by Sheriff Jamey Noel, who wants to clean the place up, and put a stop to the anarchy, violence and drug abuse taking place inside the four (extremely thick) walls. So, he’s decided to conduct an experiment. He’s putting in seven moles – members of the public, who are going to go into the prison for 60 days, as inmates, to find out exactly what’s going on in there. Their every move will be filmed by what the inmates think are security cameras. Nobody, among inmates or staff, knows that the seven are not guilty of a crime.

Sheriff Jamey’s motivations are clear enough – but what of the seven faux-inmates? What on earth would prompt anyone with even distant nodding acquaintance of their right minds to want to spend two months in such a hell hole? Most of them, it emerges, have a professional motivation. But two of them, Barbra and Robert, want to go in to expose what a cushy life it is for prisoners. They object to the country club lifestyle criminals enjoy inside.

I fear they are in for something of a shock.

Tonight’s series opener meets the seven, and looks at their training as they prepare to enter prison. Some are rightly terrified. Jeff, who wants to become a prison warder, prepares his wife Emily for his absence. “I hope you don’t find a boyfriend,” he jokes. “I hope YOU don’t find a boyfriend,” comes Emily’s response. Ouch! Robert, meanwhile, who is rapidly emerging as the candidate most likely to end up being ritually beaten, either by inmates or viewers, stretches back languidly and tells his unimpressed trainer “I just don’t want this to be too easy. That’s my concern.”

And then… in they go. This is a fascinating series (especially when things heat up in episode two), both in terms of the social experiment, and simply for the visceral experience of watching people place themselves in real danger. But there is a gloomy side as well. The conditions in the jail are beyond inhumane, with inmates sleeping four to a cell, others out in the communal area, and others still on the floor. It’s certainly not like any country club I’ve ever seen, although maybe the health spa and the ice sculpture come along in episode three.

The best… and the rest

Saturday 5th November

China: Between Clouds and Dreams, 7pm, Channel 4: A visually stunning, thoughtful and fascinating documentary series about everyday people and their relationship with their surroundings in China, this will doubtless be watched by three men and the proverbial dog.

Sunday 6th November

The Next Great Magician, 7pm, ITV: This new series is a talent competition between up-and-coming magic acts. This commission is in no way related to the last series of Britain’s Got Talent being won by an up-and-coming magician. Oh no.

Monday 7th November

Damilola, Our Loved Boy, 8:30pm, BBC One: Feature-length drama dealing with the horrific events and aftermath of November 2000 when Damilola Taylor was murdered on his way home from school. Heart-rending.

Tuesday 8th November

MasterChef: The Professionals, 8pm, BBC Two: A welcome return of the professional version of the format, although it’s never quite as bewitching as watching the amateurs create works of culinary genius. Somehow, you feel that, as qualified chefs, they’re just doing their job. Tonight, Steak Diane.

The Secret Life of Four Year Olds, Channel 4, 8pm: Return of the utterly charming show which follows very small people interacting at a nursery. Blissful.

Wednesday 9th November

Britain’s Adoption Scandal: Breaking the Silence, 9pm, ITV: A look at the disgusting and unconscionable treatment meted out to expectant single mothers from the 1950s to the 1970s, from the mouths of those who were there.

Black and British: A Forgotten History, BBC Two, 9pm: The BBC has already marked Black History Month by asking Radio 1 listeners whether black people really do prefer chicken. Whoops! Restoring a little more decorum is historian David Olusoga, exploring the enduring relationship between Britain and people whose origins lie in Africa.

Black is the New Black, 10pm, BBC Two: Black Britons, including some familiar faces, regale viewers with their experiences growing up in this country.

Thursday 10th November

Close to the Enemy, 9pm, BBC Two: New seven-part drama from Stephen Poliakoff, set at the end of World War II, concerning a German scientist who may be of use to the UK. Poliakoff splits opinion, but if you like your dramas straightforward, it may be best to look elsewhere…

The Secret Life of Prisons: Cutting Edge, 9pm, Channel 4: A look at the reality of daily life in a British prison. Drugs, violence, hopelessness and despair seem to be the order of the day.

Friday 11th November

England v Scotland, 7:15pm, ITV: A deliciously friendly bit of sporting jollity between two friends, this, as England seek World Cup qualification, Scotland seek to humiliate England, and fans seek to express their mutual admiration in the most respectful of terms.

Rick Stein’s Long Weekends, 9pm, BBC Two: The effervescent and amiable chef resumes his European meanderings, this time rocking up in Lisbon to inspect the culture and cuisine.

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