Antarctica: Show, not tell, is the Attenborough way

March 14, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

David Attenborough doesn't preach, he shows.

When the weathered outdoor filmmaker stands in the middle of an Antarctic ice field, and the camera pulls away in a helicopter shot until he is a tiny dot of dark-on-white, he wants viewers to appreciate the vastness of the continent of ice.

When he confronts a bull elephant seal guarding a harim (Arabic of harem, pronounced as ha-reem) of mates, stepping hurriedly backward as the huge beast lunges toward him, Mr. Attenborough hopes viewers will admire the variety of life -- even in so desolate a place.

"I'm not preaching. My own feeling is those of us who have a privileged access to the air should be careful about grinding our axes," says the former program director of the British Broadcasting Corporation, whose previous series, "Life on Earth," "The Living Planet" and "The Trials of Life," make him pre-eminent among television nature show producers.

"What you do is show people what it's like. That is the most powerful way of persuading them that something ought to be done about conservation," he says in a telephone interview during a recent visit to New York, where "Antarctica: Life in the Freezer" was given a premiere showing at the Museum of Television and Radio.

The three-hour documentary, a special edition of "National Geographic Explorer," can be seen at 8:05 tonight on the TBS cable channel (with repeats at 11:05 tonight and at 10:05 a.m. March 19).

"I'm heavily involved in conservation, of course," he says. He is president of Britain's Royal Society of Nature Conservation and was knighted in 1985 by Queen Elizabeth II.

"But I shouldn't, every five minutes, or indeed in every program, say, 'Oh, it's all in danger, and it's all your fault.' Because that way you will alienate people, and they will fail to understand what wonderful, beautiful, enjoyable things these are."

Thus in "Antarctica: Life in the Freezer," we hear no aggressive environmental message -- except as provided by the amazing existence of life forms that make the planet's most forbidding place their home.

The program starts with the sea, where millions of shrimp-like crustaceans, called krill, provide sustenance to a collection of higher species. Viewers soon meet penguins -- no Antarctic show would be complete without them -- seals, terns, albatrosses and whales.

Only in a final segment, "Footsteps in the Snow," do we see much of human beings -- at least, other than the show's host, who narrates from several precarious places, such as an inflatable runabout zooming past a "calving" iceberg.

"This is not a place you want to linger," he shouts from the tiny boat.

As for his encounter with the bull seal, Mr. Attenborough says he does not think he was in any great danger, for the animal was not likely to abandon his harem to the attentions of other males.

"He would've gone only a few yards, and you can keep ahead of them for a few yards. The danger would have been if I had stumbled. He would have just flattened me, because he weighs four tons," the naturalist observes.

"National Geographic Explorer" host Robert Urich introduces the program by calling Antarctica "the last great frontier." But Mr. Attenborough does not see the icy expanse as offering much promise of significant human habitation.

"There are, of course, some bases there, but they're only there because they create a little microcosm that is not Antarctica. Nobody's going to live out there. Just as we may in space live in capsules, so we may in Antarctica live in capsules," he says.

But he is awed by the exploits of the earliest Antarctic explorers, Roald Amundsen of Norway and his English rival, Robert F. Scott, who perished with his party of six while seeking the South Pole in 1911. The United States research base at the pole is named the U.S. Amundsen-Scott Station.

"When you fly to the South Pole, you can look down and can see Captain Scott's hut on the coast," the naturalist says.

"The airplane goes droning on and on and you look down and say, 'My God, these people walked to the South Pole, and they didn't have all the fancy gear that we have, they had just sort of tweed jackets. I can't believe that human beings did it, really."

As for himself, Sir David says he was not particularly drawn by Antarctica until the opportunity to go there presented itself.

"By and large I regard myself as a tropical naturalist. I am more at home and more knowledgeable about tropical rain forests," he explains.

"But the producer of this epic, Alastair Fothergill, quite rightly said, 'This is the great unfilmed spectacle of the natural world, and I'm crazy to do it.' And he invited me to go down, and so you couldn't really refuse."

Now, he says, "it was an extraordinary privilege" to make two trips to the continent. All told, six camera crews on five separate expeditions provided footage for "Antarctica: Life in the Freezer."

He hopes that viewers do nothing more than enjoy the result.

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