When I was young I enjoyed greatly the diverting summer sport of tossing hapless invertebrates into spiders’ webs and seeing the ensuing fight. Even today I’m not above the odd experiment, just to see what happens. Of course, we all know what’s likely to happen. That’s why it’s such fun.
But putting flies in webs is relatively easy compared to watching the more peripatetic spiders making a kill. It was nearly twenty years, for example, before I got to see the bizarre spitting spider, Scytodes, in action. It’s not surprising, then, that when spiders make an appearance on a nature documentary, it’s often these hunters tracking down their prey that feature – fast, spectacular action. That’s what we want to see, and of course the spiders are more than happy to deliver.
Take this clip from an American National Geographic documentary:
What a dramatic adventure! Was there ever any doubt of the result? Well, if you believe the commentary, possibly there was.
Watching this film put me in mind of an interesting contrast that I have often noticed between natural history films intended for the US market, and those intended for the British (Sorry, but other English-speaking nations will have to chip in on the comments, I’ve never watched any others). There was a time when those kind folk at Warner Brothers gave a series of US DVD prizes for The Ranger to give out to lucky competition winners. Many of these were BBC films, and of course, I watched them first, and was amazed by how very different US wildlife films are – even when made by the BBC. Now, US readers are probably wondering what on earth I mean. So, for comparison, here is Sir David Attenborough narrating a comparable clip from the BBC production Life in the Undergrowth:
More-or-less the same story – but what a different presentation. It’s a wholly different style, calculated very much for education rather than entertainment. Now, as it happens, both BBC and National Geographic clips are highly educational and entertaining, but it’s instructive to see how they place their emphasis. The NG clip emphasises the drama of the process, with prominent music building to a crescendo – taking a short diversion into eerie alien sounds when close-ups of the spider’s eyes are shown. The chortling commentary is unashamedly anthropomorphic, aiming to make the audience identify with the protagonists and feel the action for themselves.
“The jumping spider packs a ton of skulking pouncing killing fire-power in its tiny body.”
“If this were a slasher film, the audience would be screaming, ‘Look out behind you!'”
“How’d you like to stare into these eyes, with your life on the line? Ha! Yikes!”
Compare that with Attenborough’s quiet, almost abstract delivery:
“A white crab spider sits, almost invisible, on a white flower, waiting in ambush. And it catches a bee.”
“…ultra-violet markings on some flowers serve to guide insects to nectar.”
“Honey-bees seem more likely to visit flowers with crab spiders on them than those without.”
The music, such as it is, is almost imperceptible. The quiet buzzing of the insects mostly drowns it out. And even the flowers are apparently real flowers in a real field, as opposed to the quite obviously artificial scenario in the NG clip.
And yet both clips were superbly photographed, both accurately explained some quite complex information, and both clearly provided good entertainment to their viewers. So why are they so different?
It seems as though the difference lies in the vehicle which the programme-makers choose to deliver their message. In the case of Attenborough, both presenter and writer, he uses a simple scientific process in this clip: he makes observations, he forms a hypothesis. He doesn’t even present his conclusion as fact, saying only “Honey-bees seem more likely to visit…”. For Attenborough, the drama of the on-screen struggle speaks for itself. This is often the approach he takes, and BBC natural history films almost invariably follow this pattern, or at least this style. The NG film, by contrast, sets out to deliver a short, Hollywood-style set piece, as might be seen at the start of a James Bond film. Whether you understand what a retina is or not, you’ll enjoy this fast-paced action, with camera work that borrows heavily from the human world of movie-making. As well as the narrator’s jocular style, the long approach of the bee in flight; the view of the bee through the petals; the slow-motion jump of the spider – all are calculated to draw the viewer into the unfolding scene using visual cues that will be familiar and well-understood.
To my British eyes, this American clip seems almost patronising and childish in its presentation. And yet the content is little different; the difference is purely stylistic. It represents another interesting cultural difference across the Atlantic. And of course, I am forced to wonder, what do viewers in the US and elsewhere think of the BBC’s Attenborough style of natural history presentation? Do they find these scholarly discourses dull and dusty? Do they long for the commentator to chuckle in an avuncular manner or say “Whooa!”? Perhaps readers from outside the UK can enlighten us.