John Hurt explores the human planet

Humans are the ultimate animals – the most successful species on the planet. From the frozen Arctic to steamy rainforests, from tiny islands in vast oceans to parched deserts, people have found remarkable ways to adapt and survive in the harshest environments imaginable.

These stories of survival are the focus of ‘Human Planet’, an eight-part BBC Earth series following in the footsteps of ‘Planet Earth’ and ‘Life’, that celebrates the challenging relationship between humankind and nature.

An ambitious production – 125 000 kilograms of camera equipment, 900 days camping, 190 bottles mosquito repellent, 120 days trekking, four years in the making – it’s one held together by the warmly charismatic voice of narrator John Hurt.

“I was really drawn to the angle of ‘man as hero’ they used when choosing the various areas of the globe and the stories they wanted to tell,” says the actor best known for his iconic roles in ‘Alien’, ‘The Elephant Man’, and ‘1984’. “And the photography is completely staggering – the camera crews certainly must have had a fantastic time doing it.”

In fact, with the production taking in locations as diverse as Greenland and Kenya (where Hurt himself lived in the mid-’80s), the actor wishes he’d been able to tag along.

“I would have liked to go to practically all of the places,” enthuses the man who is no stranger to exotic locales. He’s worked in the South American jungle (“a wonderfully wild place”) and spent five weeks shooting a film with 120 000 penguins in Antarctica (“The experience was completely amazing – we stayed in an old British expedition hut that hadn’t been used for 20 years”), so he also knows a thing or two about solitude – and how it’s become such a rare commodity.

“The biggest challenges to our planet,” he offers, “are resources and population, without any question – not something that’s often talked about because it’s rather depressing.  With the electronic revolution in particular, it’s difficult to find any solace, any place where you can go which is truly in touch with nature.”

But this, he acknowledges, is by no means a new phenomenon.

“Every generation, I think, mourns the loss of something else. I’ve just been reading a book called ‘Weeds’ which has quite a long passage regarding John Clare, the 19th century poet, and he is bemoaning at that time the agricultural revolution which is taking away from the wilderness and the wild of his period,” says the 71-year-old veteran of over 120 films.

“And I suspect this goes on from one generation to the next, and the more urbanised we become, the further away from nature we become, and I don’t know how much one can do about that, in all truth. We can do a certain amount in our own particular and individual way. Whether or not that’s going to stop what’s called the progression of man, I don’t know.

“But I am concerned and in my lifetime things have changed hugely.” Although he doesn’t actually say it, the implication is that they haven’t necessarily changed for the better.

Nevertheless, he remains optimistic that the 80 individual stories of ‘Human Planet’ – from the Bakaya tribesman who tackles a dangerous 30-metre tree climb and a swarm of aggressive bees in search of honey, to the river dwellers in Meghalaya who create magical living bridges’ that will last for generations – can have a positive impact on viewers.

“I hope people who see it go away with an understanding of the adventurous and dignified side of life which is possible and try to weave it into their own. Wouldn’t that be good?”

  • This article originally appeared in AA Traveller, the official magazine of the Automobile Association of South Africa. (Image: BBC Human Planet)

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