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The Private Life of Plants

BBC/Roadshow Entertainment . R4 . COLOR . 293 mins . E . PAL


Veteran wildlife film-maker David Attenborough, tired of all those gorillas he's forever having to cuddle in African rainforests, has decided to take a look at the less demanding life around him.

It's out with the fauna and in with the flora, as he stalks all manner of wild trees and vegetables in all the continents of the world, from the giant redwoods of California to the microscopic fungi that live around, within and beneath just about everything we see.

It's a fascinating six-part study of vegetable life, which shows us that evolution is able to provide plants with a superb 'intelligence' of their own and a fierce will to live, even if they lack a brain as we understand it.

Some of the ways evolution has worked really does show why some people can only explain the workings of nature by postulating the existence of a supernatural god. Over how many countless generations did a situation evolve where some plants became immaculate 'hotels' for their special ant colonies, which in turn fight off marauding caterpillars, and even keep the ground around their host tree free from invading saplings? That is one of the remarkable symbiotic relationships Attenborough describes in the course of the series.

The series boasts immaculate camerawork, with breathtaking time-lapse photography. Watching, in time-lapse, small vines searching for fertile ground or for other vegetable hosts to sucker onto, shows that for the vegetable world time simply exists within a totally different framework than we're used to. For many plants, 20 years pass as if they were a single day. We see a tree some 4000 years old. And what do we do if we can? We chop these great survivors down, to supply newsprint and toothpicks.

Attenborough mentions at one stage that the Californian redwoods are the tallest trees on earth. That title, he says, would have gone to the eucalypt species Mountain Ash, in Victoria - except that enthusiastic loggers had long ago chopped down all the tallest amongst them.

There are some great sequences in this series, but if viewed too quickly (we watched over four nights), it did become too repetitive, as the same facts cropped up in the course of several episodes. This could have been a good, tight four-part series. As it is, there's compelling stuff here, but dragging it out to six parts has made it the visual equivalent of a giant coffee-table book - lush, but a tad over-done.


The rear jacket cover boasts a 16.9 anamorphic widescreen transfer. It is in fact standard-ratio full-screen, and marks have to be deducted for that bit of misleading labelling.

But other than that, the images are crisp and beautifully photographed, with wondrous colours and tonal details, and with no sign of intrusive artefacts.


Sound is television-standard two-channel Dolby Digital stereo. There are some pretty amazing sound effects employed here, to give voice to the inner life of the plants. They are all employed discreetly, to suggest atmosphere and evoke sensation and ambience. And the two-channel presentation does that absolutely adequately.


There are just two very short extra features. First is an interview with David Attenborough on the long-running UK children's program Blue Peter, where he is remarkably open about some of the production 'trickery' needed to make this series - a woodland setting reproduced inside a garage, for instance - even an Amazonian lilypad sequence filmed inside a shed.

The second short feature is another interview, this time with the production unit's specialist time-lapse cameraman, who gives an insight into some of the special difficulties involved in moving a camera into the time-frame of the plants.


This would be a great family DVD, especially for families with children who will relate strongly to the great images and pretty amazing facts David Attenborough relates.

It is one to buy rather than rent - and it would be best to space out the viewing to an episode a week at the most, to avoid the repetition that emerges from a dose of intensive viewing.

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      And I quote...
    "David Attenborough probes the fierce and determined plant world that surrounds us, from the giant redwoods of California to the minute fungi spores ready to invade every nook and cranny of our lives."
    - Anthony Clarke
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          Panasonic A330
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