TV blog

Hidden Kingdoms: Finding our real-life stars

Director and Producer

The stars of BBC One’s Hidden Kingdoms are miniature Jack Bauers, packing enough drama into 24 hours to put Kiefer Sutherland to shame, so from the start we knew that to portray their lives would require a new approach.

The world and its dangers look very different to the little creatures who star in this new series

This is a departure from the BBC Natural History Unit's usual output and is dramatised natural history.

We've filmed real behaviour but recreated certain key events, which are both scientifically and biologically accurate, that would be impossible to film in any other way.

The search for small animals leading dramatic lives began in iconic locations - the Wild West, African savannah, enchanted woodlands of North America, steamy jungles of Borneo and the urban jungles of Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro.

The animals had to be true characters which the audience would engage with - real-life stars.

The two animals in the episode I produced and directed were a kick-ass mouse in the Sonoran Desert that takes on America’s deadliest scorpions and howls at the moon like a tiny wolf.

Grasshopper mice have made their home in an unforgiving desert full of poisonous creatures

And the sengi (or elephant shrew) that lives for speed– building a series of race tracks in the African savannah in order to evade predators and find food fast. I could immediately see the dramatic potential in these two animals.

A mouse that 'roars', living an action-packed life in America’s Wild West – no brainer.

The sengi may be less of an action hero but it's story had some real strengths.

It's an animal that owes its life to something which also renders it incredibly vulnerable.

It builds an enormous series of trails through the savannah which it races along at high speed to find food and evade predators. They’re its greatest strength, but also its Achilles' heel.

The idea of this tiny animal owing its life to something it couldn’t possibly hope to defend seemed very attractive from a story point of view.

Twice as fast as a cheetah: A sengi's racetrack is its secret to success

The only animal I regret not being able to include was the Mongolian gerbil – a common pet in the UK!

I loved the idea of filming them in their native home - evading foxes, battling each other for territories and running for cover as the ground shook with the coming of Mongolian hunters on horseback - tame golden eagles on their arms.

Sadly the gerbils were a casualty of our storytelling approach.

We were initially worried there might not be enough variety in each programme and early treatments (documents where we outline our plans) featured three main animals per programme.

But as we gathered scientific information from the team's researchers and the producers started to develop the narrative structures, we realised that 15 minutes each wouldn’t do their incredible lives justice.

We didn’t want this to be a succession of five to six minute vignettes which is often the norm with our big flagship series.

We wanted the stories to develop and for viewers to become engaged, so chose to focus on just two animals per film. I hope it’s paid off.

Seen scurrying across the kitchen floor both the stars of my programme could be mistaken for pests.

By taking this unique perspective, not only have we been true to the scientific reality of their tiny lives, but we’ve also shown whether man or mouse, we all struggle to make a living, build a home and nurture our families whilst doing our best to avoid the hardship and dangers along the way.

I hope that the result is a programme that will give viewers a new found respect for the little things in life.

Simon Bell produced and directed episode one of Hidden Kingdoms.

Hidden Kingdoms stars on Thursday, 16 January at 8pm on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme times please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.

Comments

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  • Comment number 36. Posted by Maria

    on 16 Feb 2014 10:50

    I watched the first episode, and was absolutely captivated by it. It is incredibly beautiful, entertaining, thrilling and humorous. I would like to express my appreciation for the ingenious idea and the creative work put into it. I look forward to watching the other episodes in the series.

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  • Comment number 35. Posted by Fledhyris

    on 6 Feb 2014 12:07

    Absolutely stunning camera work and I know some of the key events were staged but as pointed out, there is no way they could otherwise have filmed them, so I don't know what people are complaining about - it's given us a unique view into the lives of these tiny creatures we could not otherwise have had. I was fascinated by new animals we don't see much of in the run of the mill wildlife documentaries, especially the little howling desert mouse! One thing I will point out - when you showed an eagle capturing a lizard, you forgot to edit out footage where it had actually caught a mouse ;) I think this series was superbly done and look forward to more, nobody can top Attenborough so it's time for a fresh new approach and this really worked for me. Thank you!

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  • Comment number 34. Posted by Wisker

    on 31 Jan 2014 16:24

    I would like to say, I thought the programme was fantastic! It didn't pretend to be anything other than it was and even showed how they achieved a different look at wildlife using new technology and a story board. I think this programme is awe-inspiring and I cannot wait for the next one. It has certainly opened my eyes to appreciate all small animals' adversities and should be viewed as something completely separate to normal wildlife documentaries, but instead a take on a whole other look towards an appreciation for and understanding of animals and their habitats; especially when we will more and more be living side by side. When's the next one please!

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  • Comment number 33. Posted by RFei

    on 31 Jan 2014 12:37

    In 3. Urban Jungles, the marmoset was shot climbing across two power wires. I know this is done within the stdio with blue background. However, my college Physics teacher told me if there are voltage differences between the two wires as they usually do, the marmoset climbing between will be shot death immediately. I was wondering what is the reality in Rio? The small marmosets can only stay in one power wire due to their size and safety consideration, can't they?

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  • Comment number 32. Posted by fernslewis

    on 30 Jan 2014 22:24

    Fascinating, interesting, creative and great to watch! Isn't it all about entertainment?

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  • Comment number 31. Posted by Barney Douglas

    on 30 Jan 2014 21:22

    This evening's (30 January) Hidden Kingdoms moved into the city and the first section on the tiny Marmosets in Rio de Janeiro was fascinating.

    But then the programme switched to a gambling den in Tokyo and frankly the behaviour of the human "owners" of the beetles being used as an instrument of gambling was as disgusting as Cock Fighting or the use of dogs to fuel the humans' testosterone-laden egos.

    Sorry BBC, on this one, you have seriously overstepped the mark, glorifying animal cruelty. So, some might say, they are only insects. But that is not the case. For the first time ever I am appalled at the depths of depravity to which the BBC's own natural history production department has sunk.

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  • Comment number 30. Posted by Rebecca Dittman

    on 30 Jan 2014 20:59

    I avoided this series until today as I got the feeling that it would disappoint from the trailers. Having now seen today's episode I stand by that belief. A sickly sweet commentary by Stephen Fry (not the voice of nature documentaries I'm afraid) which reminded me of Disney animal 'documentaries' of the 1950's and why oh why did the producers feel that unrealistic sound effects and a blaring orchestral score would enhance the images. I admire the lengths and technical skills that the production team went too to film the animals, but but overall (1) I won't waste time seeing any more episodes and (2) hope the BBC does not make another series so failing in engagement.

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  • Comment number 29. Posted by Norman

    on 30 Jan 2014 03:45

    "Hidden Kingdoms - fit for hamsters", but did he curl up & fall asleep? Thanks Goonie - a great laugh!

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  • Comment number 28. Posted by redSnapper

    on 27 Jan 2014 18:05

    I loved it! Thanks to Simon Bell and the hard-working team for producing such enthralling television, and giving us an appreciation of the myriad challenges that threaten the survival of these tiny creatures. The recorded insights at the programme end offer a fascinating glimpse into nature documentary production. More please!

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  • Comment number 27. Posted by Goonie

    on 26 Jan 2014 18:35

    I made my hamster watch this so he could get an appreciation of how good his life is!!!

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