Daily Telegraph

Netflix’s ‘Our Planet’: ‘Planet Earth’ revisited, but with a stronger, clearer eco-voice.

Politics is inescapable these days, it seems. Take something as seemingly benevolent and benign — and beautiful to behold — as Our Planet, the new, eye-filling nature series from Netflix, narrated by the ubiquitous Sir David Attenborough.

At the time of Netflix’s original announcement, Our Planet was to be similar and yet different to such distinctive, ground-breaking natural history programs as Planet Earth and Blue Planet. And, as the great unwashed are about to learn Friday, it has largely succeeded. There are moments of real, eye-filling majesty and genuine grandeur, backed by the swelling symphonic score of film composer Steven Price. Overbearing, yes, but it fits this kind of program. It’s easy to forget now but when the original Planet Earth came out, the loud, overblown music was by George Fenton, fresh off an Academy Award for Gandhi and its follow-up Cry Freedom, both films directed by Attenborough’s brother, the late Sir Richard “Dickie” Attenborough.

©Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix

©Gisle Sverdrup/Silverback/Netflix

The familiar visual paean to nature and the natural world that made Planet Earth and Blue Planet must-see viewing in countless households around the world is there for all to see in Our Planet, and on a Netflix budget to boot.

This time, though, there’s a noticeable difference, and not just the subtle shift in tone. Our Planet, eight episodes in all, is more eco-aware and socially conscious. It strikes a cautionary tone  — a warning. Not alarm, exactly, but still. Our Planet is no longer nature programming that focuses on nature-for-nature’s-sake, to the exclusion of any environmental message beyond a polite, almost apologetic request that we be more careful with the Earth’s dwindling natural resources. Please remember to turn off the lights on your way out, and try not to wreck the climate during your drive home.
There’s a sadness, a feeling of regret tinged with genuine fear of an uncertain future as we’re reminded, time and time again, that polar bears and elephants might not be with us much longer.

And not just polar bears and elephants, either, but bees, hummingbirds, ocean-going reef sharks and everything in-between.

Our Planet opens with a close-up view from space — reminders of 2001: A Space Odyssey —  of the moon, with the Earth rising gradually behind it. Since Neil Armstrong made his first step for man and giant leap for mankind, on July 20, 1969, Attenborough tells us, the human population has doubled, while wildlife numbers have dwindled some 60 percent during the same time. 

©Ben Macdonald/Silverback/Netflix

©Ben Macdonald/Silverback/Netflix

Our Planet isn’t strident. It doesn’t harangue us with a lecture from the bully pulpit, though there are certainly those eco-crusaders out there who would prefer to shake every last one of us — not without reason — into waking up.

Attenborough has not left BBC for Netflix, as some in the media suggested at the time. (Looking at it from both sides of the media divide, these things are easy to misreport, especially given today’s frantic get-it-first-before-you-get-it-right climate of competition in information.)

Attenborough may be 92 (he turns 93 next month) but he’s committed to several more big projects for BBC, including Frozen Planet II, Blue Planet III and Planet Earth III.

Similarly, he has left the door open at Netflix. He was signed after-the-fact to narrate Our Planet as a one-off, to give the expensive — even by Netflix standards — program instant gravitas and global credibility. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the current TV landscape is such that Netflix can reach more viewers in a single week than BBC can over the course of an entire year.

That instant access to the global village is one reason Attenborough needed no convincing to exchange Broadcasting House in London for Netflix in Los Gatos, Calif.

In his later years, he has readily admitted to anyone who’ll listen that his raison d’être in later life is to convince anyone and everyone he can that our home world is in trouble and needs our help.

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

Netflix’s reach doesn’t exactly exceed its grasp, either: Our Planet could conceivably reach one billion people, something not even BBC can do.

Attenborough is the face and voice behind Our Planet, but not its primary inspiration and directing force. That would be veteran British producer Alastair Fothergill, who made Blue Planet and Planet Earth for BBC and has recently divided his time between BBC, Disney’s Disneynature film division (African Cats, Chimpanzee and the soon-to-be released Penguins, in theatres April 17) and now Netflix.

Fothergill, a Fellow of the British Royal Television Society and recipient of the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Keaton Medal, has been at the vanguard of socially conscious, environmentally aware nature filmmaking that seeks to be both entertaining and informative. Unlike Blue Planet, which touched only briefly on plastic’s effect on the world’s oceans, Our Planet’s entire focus is on the man-made threat to the natural world.

Early reviews in the UK — in the Daily Telegraph and Independent, for example — have grumbled that, beautiful as Our Planet is to watch, the overall effect is scattered and unfocused as a result. Fothergill would argue that, unlike Dynasties with its Shakespearean tales of kings and matriarchs facing rebellion and revenge from within, Our Planet is unified by a single, overpowering message: that everything is connected, that what affects the ice fields in Canada’s frozen north also affects the semi-arid deserts in Africa’s sun-parched south, not just Arctic bears and savannah elephants myriad microorganisms, smaller animals and pollinating insects that lie between.

©Mateo Willis/Silverback/Netflix

©Mateo Willis/Silverback/Netflix

“From every region of the world there are stories that reveal nature’s resilience and show how restoration is possible,” Attenborough says in his voice-over — a reminder once again how, over time, his soothing, reverential tones have a calming effect on this crazy world we live in.

There’s something joyful — and joyous — in the way Attenborough reads out loud. It’s one of the reasons, I suspect, why Blue Planet and Planet Earth have reached such a wide audience. He’s a born storyteller. It’s not hard to imagine that programs like Blue Planet and now Our Planet wouldn’t reach nearly as many people without Attenborough as their verbal guide and shepherd.

Our Planet is important because, while it doesn’t harangue and harass us at home the way a TED Talk might, it focuses on the most important threat to humanity — arguably the most important threat of our generation — in ways that both move and inspire.

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

©Jamie McPherson/Silverback/Netflix

Attenborough is the star but the last word, by rights, belongs to Fothergill.

“When Huw (Cordrey) and I both made Planet Earth, that series was about amazing scenery,” Fothergill recalled a number of years back at a Television Critics Association press session in Pasadena, Calif. for the then new BBC nature program The Hunt. “It was about taking the audience on a journey around the planet that they could never do in their lifetime.”

What he’s tried to do with Our Planet is combine that epic cinematic poetry with a potent, topical message about climate change, species diversity and the perilous balance of nature, and why all those things matter to our collective future on planet Earth, and to the planet itself.

Only time will tell if Our Planet — and we ourselves — succeed.



Ni! He’s a lumberjack — and now a knight — so he’s OK.

It was his presidency of the Royal Geographic Society what done it, as the English say.

That, and the James Joyce Award, bestowed by Dublin, Ireland’s Literary and Historical Society, not to mention the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and — just so the (ex) colonies aren’t shut out entirely — a gold medal for achievement(s) in geography from the Royal Canadian  Geographical Society.

Also, by all accounts he’s a swell guy, judging from his self-description as being a man of “amenable, conciliatory character.”

Perhaps this charter member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus troupe can wear the mantle of “Sir Michael” after all, despite being a willing participant in some of Monty Python’s most irreverent — and anti-establishment — sketches, including the Lumberjack song (“I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK; I sleep all night and I work all day” / [chorus] “He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK; he sleeps all night and he works all day”) and the Parrot sketch, arguably Monty Python’s most famous — certainly the most readily quoted — sketch, inspired by Michael Palin’s trip to an auto mechanic who refused to accept there was a problem with his car.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

In my previous life as an entertainment-industry reporter, I talked to Palin a couple of times — most notably when he was promoting Sahara, his 2002 BBC docuseries account (film and book, both) of his transect of the Sahara Desert, “meeting people and visiting places.” There was the pink touring bus in Libya, his remark on revisiting Tunisia that this is where he was crucified (in Life of Brian, filmed in part in Tunisia 12 years earlier), and his sheepish admission that his Sahara expedition almost ended before it began, when he twisted his ankle while playing a pick-up game of beach soccer with street urchins in Morocco. When I asked him about possible future expeditions, in 2003, he seemed ready to admit that, at age 58 and with considerable prodding from his wife of 37 years and growing objections from BBC’s in-house travel insurance advisor, it was perhaps not a good idea to keep returning to war zones for the sake of a TV show. 

(How to stay married for 49 years, Palin told The Telegraph in 2015: “Sex has nothing to do with it.” How English!)

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

Why not follow in the footsteps of the early English explorers’ search for the source of the Nile, I suggested. I’m sure Sudan is a safe place to travel, BBC camera crew in tow, I told him. As for Uganda, how bad can the Lord’s Resistance Army be? They’re with the Lord! They’re doing the Lord’s work, where it’s most needed — in the wetlands of northern Uganda and South Sudan. Your wife would be thrilled. I suggested.

Once a Python, always a Python: He laughed.

He never did do Search for the Nile, but he still racked up the travel miles, camera crew in tow: the Himalayas in 2004, “new Europe” in 2007, Brazil in 2012, and this past year, North Korea.

He admitted his fellow ex-Pythons were somewhat mystified by his sudden post-Python wanderlust: In their eyes, truth be told, it was kind of weird.

No matter. Fast-forward to the New Years Honours list, the 2019 edition, when Palin, already made a CBE in the year 2000 (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), became the first member of the Monty Python comedy troupe to be given the full knighthood. Sir Michael it is, then. Palin, now 75, was knighted for his services to travel, culture and geography, and for being a global “Ambassador for Britain.”

©BBC/Michael Palin

©BBC/Michael Palin

Palin took the honour with characteristic British understatement. What, you were expecting him to go the full Mick Jagger? (When the Mick became Sir Michael Phillip Jagger, knighted for his 40 years of service to popular music at Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday bash at Buckingham Palace in 2002, Rolling Stones biographer Philip Norman sniffed, “Jagger does not deserve a knighthood.”)

The Queen personally avoided bestowing Sir Mick with the honour, because she believed him an inappropriate candidate for the honour, owing to his anti-establishment views — or so it was said at the time.

The Monty Python comedy troupe wasn’t exactly pro-establishment in its day, but that geography thing — Pole to Pole in 1992, Around the World in 80 Days in 1992, going Full Circle around the Pacific in 1997, following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway Adventure in 1999 — helped tip the scales of atonement for his sins of irreverence during the Python years.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

After learning that he had made the Queen’s New Year Honours list, Sir Michael hinted to the BBC that he’s getting a little old to trash a hotel room, Mick-style.

Instead, he told the Beeb, he may “just have a quiet celebration, just myself and a glass of Horlicks, and then go to bed.”

Horlicks, for those not in the know, is a malted hot drink developed in the early 20th century by founders James & William Horlick and sold as “Horlick’s Infant and Invalids Food,” with “Aged and Travellers” added to the label later. 

Don’t buy this “Ready for Retirement” act for a second, though. Sir Michael always knew the value of a good sound bite.

Instead, look to an admission made earlier in his career — but not so long ago that it’s forgotten by now — when he said, “Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.”

There are some miles to go yet on that particular road. Think of it as a road less travelled.

“I enjoy writing, “ he wrote in Michael Palin, Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years. “I enjoy my house, my family and, more than anything I enjoy the feeling of seeing each day used to the full to actually produce something. The end.”

The truth about cats: Left paw = right-brain male / Right paw = left-brain female.

The late-night comedian and Daily Show host Jon Stewart used to a bit called, “According to a new study…” as a way to draw attention to TV newscasts that over-rely on studies to provide news content and fill air time.

The media world — and the animal kingdom in general — 

has been tossed upside down in the past week by a new study that claims cats are right-pawed or left-pawed, depending on which front paw they use first to reach out or swat something with.

According to this study, published in the January issue of the journal Animal Behaviour (Est. 1953), right-handedness and left-handedness in cats is determined by gender: Male cats tend to favour their left paw; females tend to favour their right.



One can be forgiven for taking the study with a grain of salt, or catnip if you prefer, because we’re living in the era of Fake News, aka #fakenews — and because, as Stewart reminded us on an almost nightly basis on his Daily Show,  the media like nothing more than a new study that tells us something we didn’t know, and has broad audience appeal besides.

This particular study, as reported by National Public Radio (NPR) in the United States, and many, many other media outlets, including Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian and LiveScience.com, to name just a few, was conducted by a trio of psychology-department researchers at the Animal Behaviour Centre at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

The study involved 44 cats in all — 24 male, 20 female, all neutered or spayed, of mixed breeds, between the ages of one and 17 years.

Cat owners were asked to monitor their cats’ daily routine, focusing on spontaneous behaviour such as what paw they used to reach for food, step into their litter tray, or climb up and down a flight of stairs. Cat owners were also asked to monitor whether their cat preferred to rest or sleep on which side. Survey participants — the humans, not the cats — were asked to monitor their cat’s behaviour every day until 50 responses were reached for each question.



The study is not entirely new. Behavioural psychologists at the same university conducted a similar study in 2010, as reported at the time in Pets Magazine and other places.

That study found that, as with human left- or right-handedness, cats do tend to favour one paw over the other. The results then were similar to the results now. The 2010 researchers found that most cats will use either paw for simple things. When faced with a more complex task that requires dexterity, female cats will favour their right paw while male cats will favour their left.

Fake news? Or yet another case of cats being, well, cats? It could well take a cat psychologist to suss out the difference. 

In the 2010 study, as reported at the time in the Daily Telegraph, “in one particularly difficult task – fishing a piece of tuna out of a small jar – all 21 females used their right paw.”

Twenty of the 21 tom cats studied used their left, while one of the males was judged to be ambidextrous.

In simpler games, such as grabbing a toy mouse and dragging it along on a string, cats showed equal preference for either paw.



The researchers likened the pattern to the way we humans use either hand for a simple task, such as opening a door, but favour one hand over the other for writing.

“The more complex and challenging (the task), the more likely we’re going to see true handedness,” study leader Dr Deborah Wells told New Scientist magazine at the time.

Though the idea of testing right-handedness against left in house-cats sounds like the classic definition — where there is any definition at all — of fake news, there is a scientific question that goes beyond finicky couch moggies.

Studies of chimpanzees in the wild have shown that individual chimpanzees show a distinct preference for one hand over the other when using tools.

Hand-preference in primates is complicated, and not always easy to judge. There are still a lot of unanswered questions. Among humans, for example, left-handedness is more common among men than women, but no one can explain why.

©Queen's University Belfast/Dr. Deborah Wells

©Queen's University Belfast/Dr. Deborah Wells

“Further work is needed to investigate this,” study co-author Wells told NPR earlier this week. “The strong (gender) effects reported here . . . point more and more strongly to underlying differences in the neural architecture of male and female animals.”

Aside from the curiosity factor, why does any of this matter?

Left-limbed animals, Wells told NPR, rely more heavily on the right hemisphere of their brains, and tend to display more aggression and a more pronounced reaction to fear than right-limbed animals, which tend to use the left hemisphere of their brains more.

I can personally attest to one of the results of the study: My own couch moggy, a female, favours her right paw over her left — and I have the scars to prove it.