penguins-spy-in-the-huddleBehind their feisty charm lies an amazing character” begins David Tennant’s comforting introduction to the 3 hour penguin-fest of Penguins – Spy in the Huddle which has been “filmed as never before” using a whole range of ingenious technologies and clever camouflaging.

Producer/Director John Downer has already made a name for himself with the bird-centered Earthflight and also Polar Bear – Spy on the Ice but with this series he takes on three different species of penguin in their natural environments and sends in his carefully disguised cameras to film these engaging members of this subfamily spheniscae. He’s taken on quite a challenge here as this ground has been well and truly trodden by the epic, and nearly 8 year old, March of the Penguins which had the deep, warm tones of Morgan Freeman narrating the Emperor Penguins challenging Antarctic struggle and which picked up an Oscar for Best Documentary in 2006 together with 14 other awards plus a hat full of assorted nominations.

Penguins – Spy in the Huddle takes its three chosen colonies of penguins, the Antarctic Emperors, the Peruvian homed Humboldts and the Rockhoppers with their Falkland islands environment and follows them through one reproductive cycle showing the multitude of challenges that they must overcome using only a brain the size of a walnut. It’s gorgeous and engaging material filmed in some truly impressive environments and really does live up to the claim of being “filmed as never before” with plenty of extreme close-ups to reveal both the tender moments that parents and chicks experience plus the many hardships that they face in the unending struggle for existence. Sorry to go on about the tough side but I really doesn’t seem to be an easy life being a penguin whether it’s an Emperor in sub-zero whiteouts of Antarctica, Humboldts navigating a beach full of hungry sealions and defending their young from assaults from above.

The crew used a combination of clever self-righting penguin-cams, egg-cams and rock-cams  to get close to their subjects and combined those with conventional camera work to achieve some superb shots all the way from cute close-ups of baby Emperors to night-vision views of vampire attacks on the Humboldts. As with the previously mentioned March of the Penguins the level of endurance of the film crew in obtaining the shots must have been quite significant given the environments in which they had to film in!

Spot the odd one out

While national treasure Sir David Attenborough has been adding rich HD visuals to his science programmes as the technology has continually improved Penguins – Spy in the Huddle seems to have taken the choice of filming HD visuals and then wrapping an appealing narrative around them. Due to the nature of its subject the series moves between observational science and observational comedy. I mean let’s face it, penguins out of water aren’t graceful soaring birds of the sea and there’s always a level of inherent humour in their waddling and hopping which Penguins – Spy in the Huddle is never shy of capitalising on.

Just as much as I love all of the things in the series I’m left frustrated by some of the things it left out. For example when an Adelie penguin comes to the rescue of a group of maturing Emperor chicks who are under attack from a hungry petrel there’s no attempt to explain the behaviour, to say whether it’s been seen before or to describe how it might possibly convey some evolutionary advantage to the Adelie. Similarly having had David Tennant solemnly informing me that there were 17 species of penguin at the beginning of the first programme it came as something of a surprise to find another source quoting 16 and Wikipedia saying that there are actually between 17 and 20 species plus explaining that the “number of extant penguin species is debated” before then going on to name 22 different species. Additionally other animal species shown in the series are seen only in relation to their interactions with the penguins so are either heroes or (mostly) villains and aren’t are treated superficially. For example the amazing cloud of 500,000 nesting cormorants that fills the skies in their search for food only gets a mention because the Humboldts nesting ground is their runway and they receive little attention other than that and similarly skua, petrels and others are shown as marauders rather than as parents on their own search for food to feed their young as part of a complex ecosystem.

Curious penguins examine a covert camera
Curious penguins examine a covert camera

As such this series would appear to be primarily a focus on another Flagship Species as in his previous series on Polar bears and while it’s certainly not aiming or going to be the last word in conservation it’s certainly another way of opening the discussion for people who may be unfamiliar with penguin issues and while some prominent naturalists such as Chris Packham would be comfortable allowing Flagship Species such as the Pandas to die out  to free up resources elsewhere others don’t share that opinion and that debate is bound to continue. Until there’s more of a consensus on the matter Flagship Species will continue to be at forefront of public efforts to raise awareness of environmental issues as they are invariably good PR, as as the Penguins of Madagascar would say “Cute and cuddly boys. Cute and cuddly!”.

Leaving the debates aside the series is, as I’ve said before, visually gorgeous, very engaging and in places extremely funny so that’s plenty of reason to buy it, particularly if you have children with an interest in nature. An annoyance is that the extras are next to non-existent and the copy I received only had a photo gallery of a dozen or so pictures in addition to the episodes themselves, which I thought was a bit lacking given the amount of extra footage that must have ended up on the digital equivalent of the cutting room floor and there was no attempt at a “how we did it”.

Penguins – Spy in the Huddle is available on DVD from 8th April at £17.99 and from 22nd April on Blu-Ray at £19.99 RRP.