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. 


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