SIR David Attenborough yesterday defended Frozen Planet’s fake polar bear footage – by comparing BBC nature documentaries to movies. His blunt remarks came as more footage from the series was exposed as a sham.
In a surprising justification for duping millions of viewers, the TV star argued that owning up to splicing archive film with real Arctic scenes during the programme would have spoiled the mood.
Speaking after our exclusive story yesterday revealed shots of a polar bear and her newborn cubs were staged in a zoo using fake snow, Sir David, 85, said: “The question is, during the middle of this scene when you are trying to paint what it is like in the middle of winter at the pole, to say ‘Oh, by the way, this was filmed in a zoo’.
“It ruins the atmosphere, and destroys the pleasure of the viewers and destroys the atmosphere you are trying to create.
“It’s not a falsehood and we don’t keep it secret either. But to say actually in the middle of that sequence, I mean how far do you take this?
“Do you say this is a penguin, but actually it was a different penguin colony than this one and this one is a different one? Come on, we were making movies.”
It yesterday emerged BBC producers also misled viewers about footage of a frozen caterpillar in hit seven-part series Frozen Planet.
In an episode on November 2, Sir David said: “Beneath the rock the caterpillar is out of the wind, but the cold penetrates deep into the ground.
“Soon it’s heart stops beating, it ceases to breathe, and it’s body starts to freeze – first it’s gut, then it’s blood.”
The footage included a wide shot of the caterpillar’s natural habitat above ground, and a close-up of the creature beginning to freeze underneath snow and ice.
But some of it was actually filmed in an artificial habitat – in fact, a box.
Another scene involving snowflakes forming at close range was also set up and produced in a controlled environment using time-lapse photography.
The BBC admitted: “There’s a sequence with snowflakes which is set up – it’s filmed in a controlled situation, so they can get really close footage. And there’s another section with a woolly caterpillar, but the vast majority of it is filmed in the wild.”
In a further blow to wildlife fans, corporation bosses yesterday confessed that staging footage was standard practice in natural history programmes. They insisted such editing tricks were necessary to create the documentaries, and added the programme met the expected editorial standards.
A spokesman said: “While the great majority of footage for Frozen Planet is filmed entirely in the wild, on occasion certain sequences need to be filmed in controlled conditions – otherwise we wouldn’t be able to bring these stories to our audiences.
“This type of filming is standard practice across the industry when creating natural history programmes.”
The spokesperson added the narration was carefully worded so as not to mislead audiences – and the details of the zoo footage was explained on the BBC’s website.
But last night Mediawatch hit out at the corporation’s excuse. Vivienne Pattison said: “I’m sorry, but it’s a bit pathetic to argue that the details were available on the website. How many people would have looked at it?
“It would have done them no harm to explain how they did the filming at the end of the episode where they give viewers a look behind the scenes. Viewers are grown up, they would understand why it could not have been done in the wild.”
Sir David said filming a bears’ nest in the wilderness would have been too dangerous. He told ITV’s This Morning: “If you had tried to put a camera in the wild in a polar bear den, mother’s den, she would have either killed the cub or the cameraman, one or the other. I mean, it is out of the question.”
Last night the BBC refused to disclose the precise location and name of the Dutch zoo where the filming took place.
A spokeswoman would only say: “It’s not set up to be deluged with calls from the media.”
Frozen Planet, watched by an average 8.7 million viewers, has been sold to more than 30 countries.
Jim Shelley – verdict
NO ONE wants to criticise Sir David Attenborough, given the amazing television he has made and the work he’s done to preserve wildlife and educate us about the way we are destroying the planet.
But in the case of Polar Beargate, he would be better to recognise that what he and the BBC did was duplicitous and simply apologise.
The dodgy footage was the most touching scene in Episode Five of Frozen Planet – watched by some eight million trusting viewers.
The pictures would have been NO LESS remarkable if Sir David had simply mentioned that they were effectively library footage, shot in what we now know was a German animal park.
After all, as he pointed out on This Morning: “If you put a camera in the wild in a polar bear den, she would either have killed the cub or she would have killed the cameraman.” He could have easily explained this at the time. It is disingenuous to claim that this would have spoiled the atmosphere and to argue that the BBC “did not keep it secret”.
Attenborough’s voiceover for the footage sighed in wonder: “On these slopes beneath the snow, new lives are beginning.
“The cubs are born blind and tiny. In two more months polar bear families will emerge on the snowy slopes all around the Arctic… but for now they lie protected within their icy cocoons.”
This is clearly misleading. And viewers will be disappointed to find out that Sir David is yet another TV presenter they cannot totally trust.