Another Last Chance to See

by Sonia Mitchell

Sonia finds out whether learning about conservation can work as light entertainment.
Oooh! This is in the Axis of Awesome!
In the nineteen-eighties Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine went on a trip to Madagascar to search for the aye-aye. This one-off trip led to Last Chance to See, a radio series that sent them all over the world looking for rare, amazing and often bizarre creatures. Adams then wrote a book of the same name about the experience, which brought the project to a slightly different audience to most conservation books, given that his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series had made him a best-selling humorous science fiction author.

Apparently Adams and Carwardine had discussed doing a reunion tour before Adams's unexpected death appeared to put a stop to such thoughts. However, last year Carwardine began to retrace his steps, accompanied by another Footlights veteran - Stephen Fry. The series aired in the UK in late Autumn on Sunday evenings, and I was able to catch quite a lot of it.

One of the striking things separating the series from standard nature documentaries is the excellent graphic design work. There's a good feel for it on the website, but it excels in the programmes themselves. In particular the animation at the beginning of each episode is extremely good, with a 3-dimensional earth made of metal opening a door in the appropriate spot, and a metal animal coming out of the earth, cuckoo-clock style. It manages to evoke an appropriate clockwork 'running out of time' image, but at the same time use genuinely attractive design. There's a rustic steampunk (or clockpunk, if you must) atmosphere that diffuses what could have been a very heavy-handed metaphor. The fusion of the old metal and antique map imagery really sets the series apart from the usual fashion in natural history programming of favouring only photography.

The series doesn't fall entirely into the natural history category, though, being presented as more of a travelogue. The book functioned in a similar way, being more about the experience of going to see animals that the scientific facts about them. The book was more entertaining about it, being narrated entirely by Adams in contrast to the TV series which, being a different medium, tells the story mostly visually. Also Fry moans a bit, and while Adams may have complained a fair amount, his complaints were wrapped in wit ('I didn't notice I was being set upon by a pickpocket, which I am glad of, because I like to work only with professionals') while Fry gets less funny the more irritated he is. His narration is generally enjoyable, but on screen - though mostly likeable - he's sometimes a little eye-rolling.

Fry is also less convincing than Adams in his enthusiasm for nature. Both men occupy a role of being the ignorant one to Mark Carwardine's expert, the one who asks the questions about the animals and sees them for the first time. However the experience moved Adams and gave him a real interest in conservation that shines through in his non-fiction post-Last Chance, and even saw him climb Mount Kilimanjaro in aid of the rhinoceros. Expecting a conversion so remarkable a second time is pushing it a bit, and it isn't all that surprising that Fry, although interested in the species they find, is obviously not about the dive into that world. But it makes him fade in comparison with Adams.

Fortunately we have Mark Carwardine to save us, who is obsessed enough to carry the programme. And in the interests of declaring a bias, I'll mention that I have a huge crush on him and then move swiftly on. Although he came across as knowledgeable and interesting (if grumpy) in the book, he was depicted very much as the straight man. In the TV series he demonstrates consistent good humour and a very likeable warmth towards his subjects. He's also able to gently mock Fry's ridiculous moments, and do a lot of the explaining about nature in a very accessible way.

I guess I should probably mention the animals at some point, too. In comparison with a traditional nature documentary one could argue that the animal footage is disappointing, but that would be missing the point somewhat. The focus of the series is on how difficult the animals are to find, and therefore how difficult it is to obtain any shots at all. When the footage comes, it's all the more meaningful because there's a real chance each time that they won't get it. Showing the difficulties brings home how endangered these animals really are.

A memorable moment from the kakapo episode was when one of the project leaders mentioned that they still get occasional donations from people who've read Adam's book and put a little money in an envelope for them. I found that oddly moving, because it's not at all surprising. The kakapo chapter is one of the best and most heartbreaking, and like a lot of other people I fell in love with the odd little birds when I read it. I have to admit that I wasn't expecting to see a kakapo doing it's best to shag Mark Carwardine when I watched the episode, but apparently donations to the foundation have since rocketed so it's probably worth it (and I don't blame the kakapo one bit).

I think the best episode was the Madagascar one, which combined lots of awesome lemurs with a really good explanation of why Madagascar is in trouble and what people are doing to fight it. The guy heading up the tree planting project was inspiring, with his long term plan to once again reconnect areas of forest with vital passages of trees. It was also really good coverage of the disaster that sisal is, and the damage that a Green Agenda can do if wielded by people who don't care enough to find out exactly what they're demanding. At the same time, it didn't feel preachy - it was interesting. And lemurs are fun little creatures with an astonishing variety of sub-species that make for varied footage, especially the sifaka that went leaping across the ground. Not to mention that any explorer-type series should have a jungle episode.

To have a bit of a Scrooge McDuck moment, I was less keen on the final episode. They were unable to return to China to search for the Yangtze River Dolphin because it's sadly probably extinct. This is an entirely reasonable excuse for not going. However in lieu of the dolphin they instead went searching for the Blue Whale, which I was less happy about. Partly this is personal preference, but partly I think making the blue whale the finale somewhat contradicts the original point of the series. To my mind, it was about the realities of conservation. The first trip wasn't about searching only for the iconic creatures - many of them were ones people wouldn't have heard of, and they certainly weren't all pretty or even emotionally appealing. It wasn't a Big Five of Africa or anything so gauche.

The Yangtze Rive Dolphin is a good example, actually. As dolphins go, it was pretty ugly and hardly in the book at all. The chapter was well-told, but full of frustration as Adams and Carwardine tried to make sense of what was going on in the dolphins' world. The blue whale, on the other hand, is world famous, and seeing a whale's tale poking up from the sea is no doubt magnificent if you're there, and you like whales, but on TV it was nothing new. It wasn't a bad episode, but they were clearly trying to end with a magnificent icon and ended up delivering something rather mundane (and, I felt, self-indulgent). I preferred it when they focused on something more obscure and told a story I wouldn't get from anyone else.

However, to go back to praising the series, I still thought it was a lot more enjoyable than most conservation-slanted programmes. I definitely think there's a need for serious documentaries which keep the narrator in the background, but something lighter which shows them struggling with the terrain, or their wetsuits, also gives a valuable insight into how the world of pristine footage connects to the world of the viewer. It didn't move and inspire me in the way Adams's book did, but it was interesting, entertaining and educational. There's a good chance I'll be buying it on DVD when it comes out, and I'd happily recommend it to anyone with even a vague interest in animals.

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Comments (go to latest)
Arthur B at 14:34 on 2009-11-30
I have to admit that I wasn't expecting to see a kakapo doing it's best to shag Mark Carwardine when I watched the episode, but apparently donations to the foundation have since rocketed so it's probably worth it (and I don't blame the kakapo one bit).

It's pretty much the only part of the show I caught thanks to the BBC plugging it shamelessly on their site. I'm sorry to say I avoided watching the programme itself, probably because I'm undergoing an adverse reaction to Stephen Fry's omnipresence. Don't get me wrong, he's a charming and intelligent man with a uniquely soothing voice, but the man's everywhere these days... I may have to catch this on the repeats (or if it's still on iPlayer) though, it does sound fantastic.
Sonia Mitchell at 19:46 on 2009-12-01
Yes, do take a look if you get the chance. BBC plugging aside, the show itself balanced the serious and the silly very well. Definitely not in the make-a-lot-of-noise-and-try-to-grab-the-animal category of wildlife film-making. at 09:43 on 2009-12-03
Ooh, yes, Mark Cawardine is a darling. My friend's house is now plus one plush kakapo thanks to his adventures (it's a puppet. It does horrible things).

I enjoyed the series, though I had the same reservations about the Blue Whale as you did, and each episode left me a bit D: for the animals and the Douglaslessness. And thanks for the reminder to send some money to the kakapo folks next payday!
Sonia Mitchell at 13:45 on 2012-05-03
As an addendum to this article, I've since been to a couple of Carwardine's lectures, and I thoroughly recommend them. He's a very likeable speaker and his talks are completely accessible to non-experts. Plus his photography really is world class (he just stepped down but previously he chaired the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Panel).

Also he's not usually particularly expensive to see.
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