It’s a good week when there’s a programme on about the Lake District, but it’s an extraordinarily rich one when there are two. To add to Tuesday’s BBC4 presentation of Terry Abraham’s excellent Life of a Mountain: Blencathra, last night BBC2 gave us The Lake District: A Wild Year, produced and directed by Simon Blakeney and narrated by Bernard Cribbins.
This latter programme sold itself on its time-lapse photography aspect, a year in the life of the Lake District compressed into a single hour, not to mention some fantastic micro-photography of things that nature doesn’t usually allow us to see, and in one viewer’s case would actually have preferred not to see. Tiny, predatory jumping spiders joined shots of lambs emerging from ewes, baby slugs exuding from collapsing eggs, exploding seed pods blowing unwary caterpillars about like First World War troopers exiting trenches courtesy of their own side’s shells.
Though the programme did go some way to redeem itself over the slugs and spiders with wonderfully sharp photography of red squirrels, making my hear melt as always.
This aspect of the programme was applied to the flora and fauna, of which there was too much of a concentration for my personal preferences, with the frantic, yet smooth, time-lapse stuff being reserved for fell and valley scenes, all clouds boiling across skies of all colours, and shadows scurrying between flashes of concentrated sunlight. Oh, that that other native fauna of the Lakes, the everyday tourist, also got the time-lapse stuff, roiling into the Windermere waters for an annual swim, whose duration but not direction was specified, or flooding onto and off the Lake steamers with a jerky rapidity that suggested that any moment the soundtrack would cut to the Benny Hill theme.
No, the noisy musical soundtrack was not the highlight of the documentary, but that was part of the price of populism demanded by being shown on the more exoteric landscape of BBC2. As was Cribbins’ commentary, which was trailed in advance as sensitive but tended more to the banal, treating everything with an underlying levity that suggested it might not be entirely interesting without being mildly sent up. Or am I simply not sufficiently unspecialised (i.e., ignorant) an audience.
Cribbins was the only voice heard in the programme, aside from occasional hubbub from tourists. The locals featured – farmers, shepherds, dry-stone wallers – remained silent. This actually added to the atmosphere in the sequence where the shepherds in Langdale gathered to bring the sheep down from the fells for the shearing: all these strong, steady, silent, lean men, using their crooks as walking poles, making their unhurried and reliable way up the paths as they have done for centuries became iconic in their steadiness, their timeliness. Men doing their job, without fuss or bother.
Naturally, I could have done with far more of the fells, but then that’s me. There were cloud-chasing scenes in most of the major valleys, though with a concentration upon Windermere, Grasmere and Great Langdale. But there were shots of Derwentwater, Mardale and Haweswater, the Buttermere Valley: brief but glorious.
The programme’s year ran from April to April, from lambing to lambing, the traditional farming year, but its year of filming was the year of that terrible December, of rain, storm, flood, devastation, disaster. Though it opted for a decent brevity for that section, the programme was nevertheless serious and open. It tore my heart again to see it, to think of my beloved country being so cruelly treated: the worst was a private sequence, in a car in the rain, tearing along the road east of Thirlmere, faster than the conditions might warrant as safe, ploughing through flooded stretches that came up almost to the vehicle’s bonnet: until it stopped, for floods draining irresistably off the slopes to the right, spilling earth and rock and wall across the road in an unnegotiable collapse.
But lambing was the beginning and lambing was the end, though the repeated footage of black-woolled Herdwick lambs bouncing up and down with uncontrollable energy was the same at start and end, suggesting that only one generation was filmed. And fittingly, the last word came from a dozy lamb, lying on the ground, moving only its head around, until it looks directly into the camera and emits one falsetto bleat.
No, there’ll never be an ideal Lake District documentary until I do one myself, assuming time, opportunity, finance and talent, the last of which being probably the most tendentious aspect, but A Wild Year did more than just do until the next one, however far off that is. I miss the Lake District. I miss it all the time. Things like this refresh my memories and that connection of spirit on which I subsist.
More, please, and soon.