If there is one thing that the BBC series Hidden Kingdoms establishes conclusively, it is that you can point your camera anywhere in a jungle and you’re sure to find plenty of drama. Shifting the focus from the giants to some of the smaller beings, Hidden Kingdoms finds that the daily life of the average chipmunk in the woodlands of North America, the elephant shrew in the African Savannah and the dung beatle in the concrete jungle of Tokyo are far from ordinary, let alone boring.
The three-episode series was first broadcast in 2014 in the United Kingdom. It was aired in India on Sony BBC Earth on July 28 and 29 and will be telecast again on August 4 and 5 at 9pm.
In one episode, chipmunk collect foods – more than enough of it – to survive six months of harsh cold winds during the upcoming winter in the woodlands in America. Its plan seems under control until threatened by thieves lurking around in the form of other chipmunks, who come from the why-work-when-you-can-steal school of thought.
Elsewhere, in the middle of the African Savannah, a young orphaned elephant shrew has to eke out a living, which means staying on the trail it had seen its mother dash through in her lifetime. The dangers are plenty and varied – from giant monitor lizards to forest fires to the possibility of being crushed by a larger animal who is just out on a stroll.
Some of the protagonists are as small as a grain of rice, but size is deceptive and definitely does not imply weakness, the show convinces us.
Narrated by Stephen Fry (who tends to get a little too dramatic with his description), each episode intercuts the stories of two creatures, both of which are battling similar circumstances even as they live in dramatically different locations. In Under Open Skies, the story of how a young elephant shrew survives in the African Savannah is pitted against that of an equally young scorpion mouse in the Sonoran Desert in Arizona. In Secret Forests, the chipmunk’s hunger games are contrasted with that of the grasshopper mouse in the jungles of Borneo. And in Urban Jungles, a lost marmoset in Rio Di Janeiro is only perhaps more vulnerable to the dangers of the concrete jungle than the rhinoceros beatle in Tokyo.
The makers of the superbly edited series employ a combination of actual footage shot on location and recreated sequences enhanced by visual effects to keep up with, and sometimes even amplify, the drama of the worlds they are attempting to portray. When it was initially aired in 2014, the BBC aired warnings to come clean to its viewers that certain scenes in the series have been re-enacted using “blue-screen technology” and “ground-breaking camera techniques”. The disclaimers were issued after an earlier series had faced flak for dramatising certain segments.
The disclaimer is repeated in the latest iteration too. “Using latest technology, we can recreate the world from their perspective,” Fry tells us at the start of each episode. “Experience it as they do.”
However, as Mark Lawson argues in The Guardian, this knowledge of how the series has been created does create a sense of doubt in the viewer’s mind. One wonders whether various dramatic moments are real or re-created? The fact that it is hard to tell most of the time speaks volumes about how consistent the series is in blurring the difference between the real and the manufactured.
The other question is, of course, whether it matters. Whatever means they may have employed, the goal of the makers of Hidden Kingdoms seems to be to represent a little-known part of the animal kingdom and educate viewers about the characteristics and living conditions of various creatures in the most engaging manner possible. To that end, the use of a dramatised, edge-of-the-seat narrative seems justified and even attractive, since the drama in the lives of these little survivors isn’t manufactured.