Archives for June 2012

Secrets Of Our Living Planet: Filming the white rhino

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Jasper Montana Jasper Montana | 12:00 UK time, Friday, 22 June 2012

It shouldn't have been this wet. The 4 x 4 slid across the muddy track like it was an oil slick and slammed into the bank on the edge of the road, almost knocking us all out.

Water buffalo stood sodden and dripping with rain in the centre of the road, staring with a blank aggression as though they might charge at any moment but unable to decide if they could be bothered.

It's week three into our filming trip to Kenya for the series Secrets Of Our Living Planet and we've come to one of the most famous stretches of grassland in the world, the East African savannahs, to capture some of the incredible connections between the animals here.

Northern white rhinos in Kenya

Northern white rhinos in Kenya

One of the greatest things about the reserves and conservancies of East Africa is simply the density of animals. In many cases there is no need to wait around to see a big, hairy and often deadly African animal because you'll probably stumble upon one without even trying.

Elephants are on the roads, lions roar all night just metres from your tent and you can even walk into a one-tonne buffalo while on your way to breakfast - as I did one bleary-eyed morning last week.

So filming animals in this environment should be a breeze right?! Well, think again.

For Secrets Of Our Living Planet we were looking for remarkable relationships between animals, many of which have not been shown on TV before, and this more than anything requires planning, patience and a bit of luck.

Unfortunately today our luck began to run out, albeit briefly.

We were out to film the white rhino which has been reintroduced to Kenya and has a vital role to play in Africa's grasslands.

Thanks to large mouths and hindgut digestion white rhinos can eat their way through a lot of tall dry poor-quality grass that many other African grazers can't eat.

That allows the other smaller-mouthed antelopes to access the quality grass that grows up once the grass is cut short.

In many ways the rhino is like a giant lawnmower on the African savannah - keeping the grass short and sweet.

On our team was Steven, a rhino patrol officer who manages a team of watchmen - sentinels who follow and sometimes even sleep out with the white rhinos to monitor their movements.

Early one morning we followed the dust kicked up by Steven's motorbike as he took us to the site of the latest rhino sighting.

Slowing on the approach so that the sound of the engine wouldn't scare off our quarry the cameraman and I jumped out of the car onto the cracked earth.

The rhino was now in thick bush and we could no longer track it with the car. To film it we had to go in, but following an animal the size of a car and armed with a giant horn into the bush is not something to be taken lightly.

In such a situation your imagination might lead you to expect that you will soon be making a swift exit with a big animal on your tail.

However in reality there was only one way to find out.

Led by Steven, keeping low on the ground and trying to keep out of sight, we managed to film a group of three white rhinos.

However our swift exit came soon enough.

In a strange turn of events for dry season Africa the sky had turned black and it was pelting hail that chased us out of the bush and back into the cars.

Within minutes the roads became rivers and we slipped and skidded our way back to camp.

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'They're the closest thing we have to mammalian dinosaurs'

We hadn't quite managed to film the white rhino behaviour that we wanted on that day. As with all natural history filmmaking many things are filmed that end up on the cutting room floor - and this was just one of those occasions.

It was a few days later that we filmed the scene that made the final cut, in our next and most remarkable encounter with the white rhino.

This time luck was on our side: the sun was shining and the rhinos were out on the open plains where they sometimes feed in the morning before retreating into the thicker bush in the heat of the day.

Here we managed to film the same three individuals with Chris Packham - see how it went in the clip above!

Jasper Montana is a researcher for Secrets Of Our Living Planet and location director of episode two, The Secret Of The Savannah.

Secrets Of Our Living Planet continues on Sunday, 24 June at 8pm on BBC Two.

Analogue viewers can watch on Monday, 25 June at 11.50pm in Northern Ireland and 11.20pm in Wales. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

The series will be available on iPlayer until Sunday, 15 July 2012.

And for more information about analogue television and the digital switchover please visit Help Receiving TV and Radio.

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

Julius Caesar: Political thriller in a modern African state

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John Wyver John Wyver | 14:47 UK time, Wednesday, 20 June 2012

On a dismal afternoon at the end of April, as the rain pours down outside, the cast and crew of Julius Caesar huddle in padded jackets around bright electric fires.

We are shooting a film for BBC Four of William Shakespeare's vivid political thriller on which I am the producer.

Cast member looking at large camera on the set of Julius Caesar

Behind the scenes on the set of Julius Caesar

We are camped out in an abandoned and decaying shopping mall in north London.

But when the lamps are switched on and the camera turns over we are transported to the tropical temperatures of a modern African state and to an overheated world of conspiracy, assassination and revenge.

Director Gregory Doran, who later this year takes over as artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, started two years ago to prepare a new stage production of Julius Caesar for the company.

As he worked he was struck by the parallels between Shakespeare's tale of the violent overthrow of a dictator in ancient Rome, including its bloody aftermath, and the history of certain African states since independence.

The events of the unfolding Arab Spring seemed only to enhance the contemporary echoes.

The film, which Greg has also directed (as he did the 2009 BBC film of Hamlet with David Tennant), was shot in the middle of rehearsals for the stage production.

With the same distinguished cast (including Paterson Joseph, Cyril Nri and Jeffery Kissoon) this television production complements the theatre version, which opened earlier this month to hugely enthusiastic reviews.

At the same time the film is a distinctive and original interpretation for the screen, with the spaces of the shopping mall allowing us to create a richly detailed African world and the camera achieving an exceptional intimacy with the motivations and the ideals, the hopes and the fears of Shakespeare's characters.

While respecting the essentials of the stage production the film re-imagines many of the key scenes including the central drama of Caesar's murder.

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Brutus (Paterson Joseph) and Cassius (Cyril Nri) after the assassination of Caesar

On screen this is set on the shopping mall's escalator, where Caesar has paused in what we imagine to be the anonymous architecture beneath the Senate House.

So while this has been opened out as a spectacle for the camera the later appearance of Caesar's ghost before the climactic battle called for the tightest of shots filmed only an inch or so from Brutus' face.

In their very different ways both for me are highlights of the film: exciting and immediate and illustrative of how Shakespeare can still surprise and thrill audiences familiar with the political drama of The West Wing and The Killing.

From its first production in 1938 to the most recent in 1979 the BBC has broadcast eight previous versions of Julius Caesar (making it the most popular of Shakespeare's plays on television).

None however will have made quite such sense as this African setting for Cassius' exultant - and chillingly prophetic - words just after he has plunged his dagger into Caesar's heart:

"How many ages hence
Shall this our lofty scene be acted over
In states unborn and accents yet unknown!"

John Wyver is the producer of Julius Caesar.

Julius Caesar is on Sunday, 24 June at 8pm on BBC Four and will be available on iPlayer until Sunday, 1 July 2012.

Julius Caesar is part of Shakespeare Unlocked and the 2012 Festival.

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

The Men Who Made Us Fat: Are you TOFI?

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Jacques Peretti Jacques Peretti | 10:00 UK time, Thursday, 14 June 2012

At London's Hammersmith Hospital a suave gent by the name of Dr Jimmy Bell is ushering me into his MRI scanner.

I'm here for a scientific trial as part of the television series I'm making for the BBC - The Men Who Made Us Fat.

I came up with the idea for the series a while ago as I was watching the original version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory from 1971.

I was struck by how the character Augustus Gloop, the supposedly obese child, now looks perfectly ordinary.

I wondered how in the space of 40 years we could have changed our idea of what is fat so drastically.

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Jacques Peretti has his hidden obesity levels checked

So having authored the series and worked in partnership with FreshOne Productions and the BBC to get the series made, here I am in the above video clip - at Hammersmith Hospital about to discover how fat I really am.

Dr Bell specializes in analysing not the external fat of patients but the internal fat, and the shocking truth is that it's not just the obviously obese who are in trouble from their diet.

It could be all of us.

I'm not particularly worried as I put on my blue gown and am lowered into the space-age chamber.

I cycle to work, I walk up escalators and play the odd bit of football in the garden. I'm by no means a health nut but I do enough physical activity to remain relatively fit, or so I think.

For half an hour I must lie perfectly still as a scanner moves up and down my body creating a detailed image of every last inch of fat.

"There will be no hiding place for your fat," Jimmy tells me ominously.

Then it's all over, I take off my headphones and re-join the world, sitting in Jimmy's office to go through my results.

On the outside, Jimmy says I am fit.

"There is very little external fat," he tells me.

"But on the inside," he says, gesturing to the scan ominously "your liver is swimming in fat - four to five litres."

Four to five litres!

In all honestly I was so shocked by the results of the test that I found it difficult to continue interviewing the professor properly.

On average we are all three stone heavier than we were in the 60s, and for the vast majority of us the fat is internal.

Jimmy calls us 'TOFI's' (Thin Outside Fat Inside).

Worrying as this realisation is, on reflection it makes sense.

It shows the degree to which sugar, which as many of the programme's contributors explained to me can be a major contributor to obesity, is present within our everyday diet.

Having just discovered I was a TOFI I want to quiz Jimmy on what I could do to reduce the amount of internal fat I was carrying.

He reassures me that there is a solution - firstly we should eat less processed food and instead opt to cook from scratch and reduce our sugar intake.

Secondly, short, sharp bursts of sprinting, 30 seconds at a time three or four times a week. It mimics what we did as hunter-gatherers and burns off the internal fat.

Forget jogging and lay off the midweek Chardonnay in front of re-runs of The Killing: the sugar in the alcohol turns to fat. Unfortunately.

Now if only I had the willpower to put that advice into practice!

Jacques Peretti is the presenter of The Men Who Made Us Fat.

The Men Who Made Us Fat is on Thursday, 14 June at 9pm on BBC Two.

Note: Due to the extended Wimbledon coverage, the third and final episode of The Men Who Made Us Fat has been rescheduled for Thursday, 12 July at 9pm on BBC Two. It will be available to watch in iPlayer for the following seven days.

Update 4 July: Episode one and two have unfortunately now expired in iPlayer because of a break in the run of the series due to the unavoidable schedule changes.

However, all three episodes will be available in iPlayer when they're repeated as part of the Sign Zone starting on Wednesday, 11 July at 2.30am on BBC One. Please see the episode guide for further times.

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

The Secret History Of Our Streets

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Joseph Bullman Joseph Bullman | 13:00 UK time, Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Charles Booth's survey of London is the most ambitious social survey ever conducted. Starting in 1886, it took Booth 17 years to visit every one of its tens of thousands of streets.

When he was finished, he'd produced a series of stunning social maps, which colour-code each of London's streets according to the class of its residents - from yellow for the Servant Keepers, all the way down to black, for Vicious and Semi-Criminal.

Drawn map of Deptford High Street, London

Charles Booth's descriptive map of Deptford, London

I remember sitting in a greasy spoon near Borough Market in London, and putting the idea for The Secret History Of Our Streets to my friend the director Brian Hill.

I told him we should go back to Booth's original study, to find out what had happened to the streets he'd visited 130 years earlier. Brian saw the potential instantly.

We were determined that the people of each street would tell their own story, collectively, for themselves.

But handing over the story to the residents was a challenge, because most knew only fragments of the street's story.

There were no 'experts' in Deptford High Street and historians don't specialise in single streets.

The Deptford High Street we found is one of the poorest shopping streets in the country. But when Charles Booth had arrived in the 1890s it was the Oxford Street of south London - so prosperous that many of its working class shopkeepers kept domestic servants.

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The storyteller John Price remembers his family history

When our young cub researcher walked in to John Price's Bent Can discount shop on the high street, John right away told him to "F*** off!" What did he know about Deptford High Street?! And young people today "don't know nuffin!"

The young researcher advised us to steer clear of John's shop, as he had gone so mad.

But experience taught me that the best documentary characters can often seem that way, so I asked my assistant producer Jaime Taylor to go in again, this time wearing a crash helmet. Jaime had more luck.

Over the weeks, we got close to John. He turned out to be a dazzling story-teller... The kind of person who was so good at conjuring up a lost past that he ought to get paid just to stand in his shop and talk. (Which he does anyway, the Bent Can acting as a kind of hang-out for hundreds of larger-than-life Deptford characters.)

John told us his family had been trading on the high street for 250 years, and that the side-street he'd been born on, just a few paces from his shop, had been "torn down cos it was too violent."

His family had spent two years living in their house, surrounded by rubble, because they didn't want to go.

John Price as a boy, poses with his extended family in a black and white photo

The Price family of Deptford: John is the boy at the front

Nearly all the Victorian terraces that had once fed into the high street had been pulled down in the 60s and 70s and there was no official account of the mass demolition.

Jaime spent weeks in the London Metropolitan Archives, going through thousands of uncatalogued papers, thrown in boxes, half a century earlier.

To our astonishment, these hand-written notes seemed to confirm what John and the Deptford people had told us.

That the street was full of solid, well maintained homes. No need for demolition...

John Price's strange comment had thrown up a story that needed to be told.

And through the series, every time we drilled down into the history of a single street, our researchers kept coming up with stories which seemed to re-write the history of London.

George Andrews looks up at a row of terraced houses in Portland Road

Episode four: George Andrews in Portland Road

On Portland Road, Notting Hill we found multi-million pound houses once occupied by a family of eight in each room.

On Caledonian Road, Islington we found a road whose history was shaped by a prison.

On Reverdy Road, Bermondsey we found the aristocratic landowning family that built the street more than a century earlier.

I reckon that anyone who watches this series is gonna end up walking down their own street, looking over their shoulder, and thinking 'how did we end up here?'

Joseph Bullman is the co-producer of the series The Secret History Of Our Streets and the director of episodes one and four.

The Secret History Of Our Streets is on BBC Two at 9pm on Wednesday, 6 June.

For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

BBC Four has launched The London Collection, a selection of archive BBC programmes which you can watch in full on BBC iPlayer.

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

Filming Gary Barlow: On Her Majesty's Service

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Ben Winston Ben Winston | 10:59 UK time, Friday, 1 June 2012

Making a show like Gary Barlow: On Her Majesty's Service is a director's dream job.

To be able to travel all around the world, on a real mission of discovery, and be part of something as big as the Jubilee feels like a real honour.

Gary was asked some time ago to make a song for the Queen for her Diamond Jubilee celebrations.

I think at first he wondered if it was his kind of thing.

Sometimes these 'event songs' don't manage to capture the moment. But I could see from chatting to Gary, that he was tempted.

Gary Barlow with Australian aboriginal musician Gurrumul in the Blue Mountains, Australia

Aboriginal musician Gurrumul plays guitar with Gary in the Blue Mountains, Australia

It was when he thought of the idea of including the Commonwealth, we both felt he was on to something.

Choosing the countries was a real debate. Kenya was obvious to us both. Not only was it so important to capture the sound of Africa - but as the Queen became the Queen while she was there, where better for us to start?

After that we looked at the 16 realms, where the Queen is actually the monarch of the country - and tried to get variation in both the sounds of the place, and the look.

Jamaica is the home of so much music. Australia gave us orchestras and modernity. Solomon Islands gave us that middle-of-nowhere feel.

The thing that excited me about this, was how much was at stake for Gary. How real this all was.

He may be an acclaimed songwriter - the man is a hit factory - but this was a real challenge. Firstly creatively.

He had nothing more than a small piano melody when we left the UK. No lyrics, no clues as to what our song would end up sounding like.

Secondly, technically - travelling to the middle of nowhere with only minimal equipment is far from what he is used to.

Add that to the pressure of knowing the Royal Family were waiting for this song, and I was going to be on his shoulder filming the whole time - this was a big deal.

I approached this film looking at a few different angles. Overall it was of course the story of Gary making this song and the process behind that.

But this film had to be as much about the characters he meets, as it is Gary.

I feel we could have made a whole film about the slum drummers in Kenya. How can one not be moved when listening to their plight, and hearing them play their instruments made of rubbish?

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Gary has a drum-off in a Nairobi slum

If you see where they come from, and hear what they all bring to the song, I feel the record means so much more.

And what a treat to be able in a one-hour film to have that many different backdrops, from rainforests to deserts to film in.

It was so important to me that this film looked beautiful. Everywhere we went had beauty - so the film needed to show that.

I was surprised to see how moved Gary was by the experience. I think he felt that music for him had become his business and he perhaps had lost a bit of what got him into music.

It was these characters, who play simply because they love it, that reignited his fire once more.

I think if the film had just been Gary meeting people - it could have dragged. The fact we see him going through something too allows the film to be richer.

It was of course a huge honour - and a rarity - to get so many members of the Royal Family in the documentary. But I think they were excited by the idea, and interested in the prospect of it all.

Working with Gary was a pleasure. He is so passionate - up early every day, eager to meet new people, determined to create this special song.

He is a joy to be around every day. There is no editing to make him look great - he is as natural and funny as he comes across on screen. I felt very honoured to be part of this whole journey.

Ben Winston is the director and executive producer of Gary Barlow: On Her Majesty's Service.

Gary Barlow: On Her Majesty's Service is on BBC One and BBC One HD at 7.30pm on Sunday, 3 June.

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

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