Climate change is the single largest threat to our world. In a groundbreaking new documentary, director and producer Alastair Fothergill addresses the issues the planet is facing head on. He talks to Jessica Hope ahead of his appearance at The Bath Festival
Having travelled to the planet’s most treacherous environments, explored its vast oceans, and encountered the freezing temperatures of the Arctic, director and producer Alastair Fothergill has seen more of the natural wonders of the Earth than most. Now, more than ever, these are under threat from climate change – and without urgent intervention will soon be lost forever.
“Our biggest single challenge at the moment is global warming. It’s having an impact on all habitats and producing effects worldwide,” says Fothergill, who is renowned for his work producing some of the BBC’s landmark natural history documentaries such as Planet Earth and Frozen Planet.
This sense of urgency is what inspired Fothergill and producer Keith Scholey to create their latest documentary series, Our Planet. “I felt the time had come to not only celebrate the natural world and look at what remains, but delve into more depth about the challenges our planet faces,” he says.
Our Planet, produced by Fothergill’s Bristol-based production company Silverback Films, is a Netflix Original documentary series and will launch on 5 April on the streaming service.
The eight-part series, made in partnership with World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), showcases the most precious species and habitats from across all seven continents, from the most remote corners of the Arctic to the jungles of South America, via the deep dark oceans.
“We don’t film destruction. Our Planet is about the value of the habitat. And we talk about biodiversity and what we must save if we want to pass the world on to the next generation,” says Fothergill.
The series also reflects on the positive changes happening in the environment, such as the sighting of an aggregation of more than 200 humpback whales feeding off of South Africa. A commercial whaling ban was implemented in the 1980s after the whale population had been decimated from worldwide hunting, therefore discovering the whales off of South Africa means a considerable increase in its population.
The crew were also able to capture remarkable footage from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster zone. “Using motion-controlled cameras that were left there for two years, we were able to film wolves in Chernobyl. Wolves are the top predator, and you only get them if the whole habitat is healthy. And there are in fact more wolves in the exclusion zone of Chernobyl than all the surrounding areas,” he says.
News of this highly anticipated series shot onto the world stage when its first advert debuted to viewers at the Super Bowl final in February – this was also the only advert that Netflix purchased to be shown at the big game.
“I think this reflects Netflix’s extraordinary interest in the series. The Super Bowl is the most expensive advertising in America – and probably the world. They’ve never done an advert at the Superbowl for a documentary before, and they estimate that 120 million people viewed it,” says Fothergill.
Broadcasting the series through Netflix also means that the series’ core message can be spread across a worldwide audience. “From 5 April we will be shown in 190 countries, with 139 million subscribers. A lot of those subscribers are aged 16–30, which is the age group which has deserted terrestrial TV, and they are also the people who really care about the environment,” he says. “We’ll be on Netflix for months and years to come, allowing us to continue the conversation.”
Following the global climate strikes in March where children from more than 100 countries across the world walked out of their classrooms to protest against the lack of governmental action in preventing climate change, the discussion about preserving the Earth definitely isn’t wavering.
In order to keep the conversation going, there will be an enormous source of regularly updated online content available from the WWF following the series launch, so audiences can find out more about the habitats featured in the series, as well as what people can do in their everyday lives to make a positive difference to global warming. There is also a fully illustrated companion book to the series available, published by Bantam Press.
Working together on a joint project, WWF, Netflix, PHORIA and Google have created an augmented reality (AR) globe installation called REWILD Our Planet, which will go on tour around the UK, Singapore and New York. The first installation opened at We The Curious in Bristol last month and is open to the public until 2 June. Visitors can explore the planet through AR, investigating the vast habitats of animals from across the world as if you were really there.
From a young age, Fothergill was fascinated by animals and the natural world. Born in London, he went to Harrow before reading zoology at Durham University where he entered a competition for students to make a natural history documentary. “We went to Botswana and made a really rather bad film. But it was a wonderful way of appreciating that film-making was a way for me to show my passion for the natural world to other people.”
After graduating, he joined the BBC’s Natural History Unit in Bristol in 1983, producing programmes such as The Really Wild Show. His first job with Sir David Attenborough was on the 1990 series The Trials of Life, and has continued to collaborate with him on countless projects ever since.
Attenborough was, therefore, a natural fit then to narrate Our Planet. “Most of the damage we have done to the planet has happened during David’s lifetime,” says Fothergill. “He’s 93 in May, and has a legacy. He’s now decided to be more outspoken about [climate change] than ever before.
“He’s the voice that is really trusted. We are saying some stark facts [in Our Planet] – some would say controversial facts – but they’re not. By working with WWF, we are 100% certain that it’s scientifically accurate. But we are saying things that some people really don’t want to hear. But when it comes from David with his authority, that’s what is absolutely critical to us.”
After almost 30 years at the Natural History Unit, including a spell as the unit’s leader at only aged 32, Fothergill and Keith Scholey set up wildlife production company Silverback Films in 2012. Recognised for his outstanding contribution to natural history programming, Fothergill was made a Fellow of the Royal Television Society in 2016, and was presented with an honorary doctorate from the University of Bristol in 2018.
After dedicating much of his life to helping promote and preserve the natural world, Fothergill is hoping that Our Planet can encourage people to take accountability for their actions and make a real change to the environment. He says, “The word ‘Our’ implies ownership and responsibility. We only have one.”
Our Planet is available on Netflix from 5 April.
Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey will be speaking about Our Planet at The Bath Festival on 24 May, 8pm, at the Assembly Rooms. Tickets £10; thebathfestival.org.uk
Main image: Alastair Fothergill in Antarctica, credit: Sue Flood