Human Planet – Deserts: Life in the Furnace

ALASDAIR PAL: “If only there were a way to turn John Hurt off”.

africa attenborough bbc desert iWatched john hurt sir david attenborough


In the Sahara, dust storms can cover an area the size of Britain. “Welcome to the desert”, croaks John Hurt, voice as dry as ten tonnes of sand.

Quite a departure from last week’s Human Planet (iPlayer), which looked at the ocean and all things wet. Presumably this counts as a joke in the BBC Natural History Unit, but I digress. The series follows a fairly simple premise: what would happen if instead of following wallabies, or whales, or woodlice, we followed people?

Rather a lot, as it happens. And those people, young, old, weather-beaten by winds and drought, certainly make for compelling television.

First up is Mamadou, a 16-year-old Malian. When I was that age, I mainly perfected free-kicks on Fifa 07. But Mamadou’s days consist of cajoling 60 cows hundreds of miles to the nearest lake – in a race against a herd of African elephants. Even more impressive is Shede, who leads a caravan of nomadic women to a well a metre wide, using the ever-shifting sand dunes as a compass. She’s ten.

It’s not all about the grind though. We see a camel birth, and kids dancing in rains which haven’t fallen for two years.

“It’s a bit like going for that long without sex and then having a threesome”, suggested a friend. I started to chastise him for being culturally insensitive, but then the camera cut to the Guérewol, an adulterous courtship ritual in Niger.

Jaio in his best pulling gear

“I’ve spotted three men here I like”, said one woman. Blimey. The real action, however, is with Jiao, who in the words of a tremendously excitable Hurt, is searching for “a night of desert passion”. He’s unsuccessful, much the relief of Mrs Jiao.

Full marks all round then? Not exactly. Certain aspects of the wildlife format don’t quite carry over. The search for water on foot that runs through the programme seems a bit hollow when in ‘The Making of..’ segment, you see a crew member get out his Land Rover, pull on his Ray Bans, and start inflating his hot air balloon.

And while the whole thing is beautifully shot – long-exposure skies, hi-def sweat, that sort of thing – it’s low on continuity. The Life series was so successful because Attenborough was in front of the camera, anchoring the show. But since his semi-retirement from the field, the only thing poor Dave gets up to is wandering around staring at rocks, in the less-than-riveting Buried Alive.

The same problem persists here. There’s a distinct lack of analysis, and the location choices seem arbitrary at best. When the camera pans over Las Vegas, Hurt wonders whether desert living has “gone too far”, which seems a pretty stupid way of ending a programme about human ingenuity. If only there were a way to turn him off.