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Peter Coates Interview: How Blue Planet caught the nation's attention

Professor Peter Coates

The BBC's Blue Planet II has grabbed the attention of television audiences once again – with more Britons tuning in to it last weekend than either the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing. The series' remarkable success is down to its ability to tap directly into our 21st century sensibilities, says Professor Peter Coates, University of Bristol.

Like many others in the Bristol area, I missed out on attending the free public screening of the opening episode of Blue Planet II at Bristol’s Showcase Cinema De Lux back in October.

Yet perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise – there were apparently over 100,000 applications for the few available tickets.

I’m sure that part of the draw was the chance to see, in the flesh, its narrator, Sir David Attenborough, introducing the series.

But when I step back and think a bit harder about BPII’s phenomenal appeal, I reckon it’s got something to do with our human status as terrestrial creatures.

This may be why we’re so intrigued by the oceans - more intrigued by them, I think, than we are about outer space. Airplanes allow us to fly high in the skies. But the oceans are our world’s ultimate mystery – even though they cover nearly three-quarters of (so-called) Planet Earth.

Even with diving equipment, we cannot go down much more than 70 metres. There are potentially thousands of yet-to-be discovered species way down there, especially in the deepest of watery spots such as the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific. You could toss Mount Everest into it without leaving a trace, its summit languishing more than 2 kilometres below sea level.

Since its formation in 1957 the BBC Natural History Unit has spearheaded broadcasting that addresses our profound fascination with our planet's wildlife.

Our research, for an AHRC-funded project entitled ‘New cultural producers of nature’s value: Exploring the role of Britain’s wildlife filmmaking sector in partnership with the BBC Natural History Unit’, includes a large oral history element.

Professor Coates' AHRC-funded research project TurningTheLens

One of those we interviewed was Gail McKenzie, who served as the NHU’s first press officer. She shared some of the promotional materials for The Life of Mammals (2002), which included an interview with the series’ writer and presenter, David Attenborough.

“I very much hope that the overall effect of natural history programmes is that people are more aware of the value and the beauty and the importance of the natural world and thus will have a greater concern to protect it and be more alarmed when it appears to be damaged,” he said.

“And to make appeals to and to protest if politicians were to ignore it.”

It’s really hard, if not impossible, to measure that effect in tangible ways since the NHU released its first mega-production. But insofar as more of us care, and care more deeply, about the state of planet earth today than we did in 1979, the Unit’s filmmakers deserve a large chunk of credit.

Blue-chip natural history productions are sometimes criticised for promoting complacency by giving the impression that all’s hunky dory in the natural world by transporting us to sublime and pristine locations – apparently untainted by human presence and interference. But that’s not entirely fair.

To paraphrase one of our interviewees – a former Head of the NHU – if you don’t know something exists or haven’t seen something, then you can’t admire or value it. And if you don’t value something, then you can’t care for it. And if you don’t care, then you aren’t moved to protect.

Not only has ‘Springwatch’ – a very different kind of NHU programming - created a community that continues to flourish even after the programme has left our screens. It’s also responsible for the ‘Springwatch Effect’ encouraging viewers to get off their sofas and into their gardens, local parks and nearby countryside – and to actively support the cause of UK wildlife, great and small.

The Springwatch Effect can be substantiated by a marked increase in the traffic to the websites of wildlife conservation organizations while the Watches (Springwatch and Autumnwatch) are on air. It can also be measured in sales of things like birdfeeders and binoculars, and in extra tourist revenue generated by the places that feature on screen.

I asked my colleague Marianna Dudley – Lecturer in Environmental Humanities at Bristol University – about BPII’s popularity. She told me that it’s the most beautiful thing you can watch on TV at the moment – an eyebath for sore eyes and a satisfying blend of education and entertainment. Canon Angela Tilby, in her ‘Thought for the Day’ on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 2 November – which was inspired by BPII’s opening episode – referred to the mesmeric quality of the way the giant waves were filmed, and how the mysteries and enchantments of the oceans evoked a sense of wonder.

I totally agree. Who had any idea that fish use tools? Or that you can attach suction cameras to whales?

By Professor Peter Coates (with input from project researcher, Susie Painter). 

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