Savage Kingdom: TV by Natural Selection

When Icon and our partners at the Natural History Film Unit Botswana were first commissioned to produce Savage Kingdom by Nat Geo Wild the channel told us that after making natural history television for 50 years it was looking for something new, something totally different. That was all the encouragement we needed.

The question then was how far they were prepared to go, particularly in terms of the thresholds of violence, aggression and predation. Are we going to be real about this or not? When you watch Game of Thrones (GoT) people regularly have their heads cut off. Yet in natural history programming the camera tends to drift off into the clouds when anything horrible happens.

A throwaway remark about nature being ‘the Real Game of Thrones’ proved to be the big sell for the series. After that we thought if we’re going to do the real GoT, let’s get the voice right. I’d done narration on a show called The Bones of the Buddha with Charles Dance, who plays Lord Tywin Lannister in GoT, about a year before and he was the obvious choice. He’s a fantastic theatrical actor with a background in Shakespeare and Dickens. Real storytelling.

Charles brings recognition to the project. The series begins with his narration: “I am life, I am death, I give everything but I take all. I am the Savage Kingdom.” When I say those lines there’s no effect, when he does it the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

We’re taking a lead from the ‘golden age of scripted television,’ not just GoT. Why not Peaky Blinders? Why not Wolf Hall? Why not influence from all of these things? We want people to watch this and enjoy it – we don’t want people to think of it as worthy. There’s a lot of sex, violence, betrayal, sadness and drama.

As in GoT, the main characters suffer sudden death, which isn’t supposed to happen in traditional television narrative but does in the real natural world. We have a scene where our leopard heroine leaves her cubs to go and hunt and they wander off from their den straight into one of our lions, who kills one of them right in front of you. It’s every bit as powerful as anything you’d see in present day dramas in terms of sudden brutality. But it’s not gratuitous – it’s what happened.

A problem with natural history is that it’s been a sacred cow among television genres; there’s something unimpeachable about it. I suppose if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s always been a very strong genre so there was a reticence to mess with it, because why would you want to?

But when the BBC’s Natural History Unit was in its heyday there were three channels and 18 million people came home on a Sunday night to watch Life on Earth. I’m not saying natural history hasn’t changed at all – there have been some very innovative series – but it’s changed less than other genres in television, which are now unrecognisable from when it started. Not so much in natural history.

One issue is natural history programming has tended to be made by scientists – people who had degrees in zoology from reputable universities – as opposed to filmmakers. I’m not saying it’s necessarily more difficult to get a pygmy mongoose expert to become a storyteller than it is to make a storyteller into a pygmy mongoose expert, but actually your audience does not need to have a PhD-level tutorial in pygmy mongoose behaviour, they want to be engaged.

The BBC has got Tom McDonald as head of natural history now and it’s probably the first time somebody in that sort of position hasn’t come with a degree in natural history from St Andrew’s or Oxford – so things are changing.

There’s a stigma around having talking animals in natural history programming, putting voices to them. The old dyed-in-the-wool natural history fraternity would spin in their graves if animals were given names, let alone if they talked, but I think if it’s done well there’s no problem with it.

In Savage Kingdom the animals have names given to them by the local people in the Savuti National Park in Botswana, where we filmed. We went round the houses on how the animals would talk, and we haven’t done it in a ‘Disney’ way. Charles articulates what we believe the animals are thinking. We also use a second-person narrative style, where Charles will warn the animals, “Keep your cubs close, danger is coming!” When you see the families on Gogglebox watching natural history programming they’re all shouting these things at the screen, so we’ve brought that into the show and it has an incredible affect.

So we’ve crossed that threshold of giving the animals names and given them articulation. There are six films and each one is from the point of view of one character and it’s all about the rise and fall of different dynasties in this competitive, Botswanan Savage Kingdom.

National Geographic has been around a long time and the society has a global reputation. They didn’t want a total revolution, they wanted evolution, and that’s what we did for our commissioners Janet Han Vissering and Geoff Daniels at Nat Geo Wild.

When you see what we left out of the shows I think we exercised restraint – for example, when the leopard realises her cub is dead, she eats it. We didn’t show that, we felt it would be going too far.

We’re educating with broad-brush strokes, and entertaining with a more detailed brush. We’re not giving the viewer dry micro-information. Nat Geo has the ability, through its various platforms, to provide an amazing 360º experience around its programmes, so if people want be entertained and emotionally engaged they can watch the series, and if they want to be educated they can use the dedicated apps and website to dig in later.

I’m sure an element of the old guard will say this series is dumbing down the genre, but it’s just a different way of doing things. It’s like the modern version of Sherlock Holmes. I’m sure a lot of Arthur Conan Doyle aficionados don’t appreciate the BBC update being set in the 21st century, and I’m sure some of the old natural history fraternity won’t entirely approve of Savage Kingdom.

One might point out that in the natural world there’s only one rule: adapt or die. It’s survival of the fittest, evolution by natural selection. The genre has got to move. That’s what happens in the natural world and that’s what happens in television.

The animal kingdom is an interesting model for the predatory nature of the media industry.

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