This winter millions of people tuned into the BBC’s latest nature documentary Frozen Planet,
expecting to be taken to a world beyond their own reality, a world that only a mere
handful get to see firsthand. Audiences were dazzled with images of a land of snow,
polar bears, penguins, seals and killer whales.
However, it seems that viewers were not always taken to the magical world they had
previously thought. In episode 5, scenes were shown of an underground polar bear
den, containing a mother and her tiny newly born cubs. Whilst viewers assumed that
this footage was filmed by a very brave and technologically advanced cameraman, it
emerged that these scenes were actually filmed in a makeshift den in a Dutch zoo.
Despite the BBC being open about their filming techniques, many are feeling mislead.
Although the commentary didn’t explicitly inform the viewers on the nature of the scene,
instead speaking only in general terms of polar bears birthing habits, various behind-the-
scenes clips were uploaded online, one of which detailed how the scene had been filmed.
Sir David Attenborough has defended the usage of inauthentic material, “If you had tried
to put a camera in the wild in a polar bear den, she would either have killed the cub or
the cameraman.” Polar bear attacks have been brought to the public’s attention this year
when a boy on a school trip was mauled to death by a bear that had wandered into their
camp. If these are the actions of a hungry bear, think how a mother would have reacted
when, as far as she was concerned, her babies’ safety was at stake. Do we expect our
nature cameramen to have superhuman courage and risk their lives for the sake of their
The filming teams behind nature documentaries like Frozen Planet are committed to not
interring with nature; they can look but not touch. We have all viewed scenes of a predator
chasing down its prey and had our heartstrings tugged. We may will the cameramen to
intervene but we understand that they cannot and should not meddle. This case is no
different. Had the team attempted to film a mother with her newborns in the wild then
they would have been placing themselves in a position where they would have risked
breaching this pact. It would be unethical to say the least to put either party in danger
just so that the viewer at home could feel satisfied that they’ve seen the real thing.
It appears that the makers of Frozen Planet were faced with two options: either
they produced the scene in a zoo or they didn’t include it at all. Being a confessed
David-Attenborough-Addict, I do agree with their decision to use the footage and this
revelation hasn’t tainted my love for these shows. However, I do not pretend to remain
ignorant of the problems raised by this. If we are not able to distinguish between
the real deal and the next-best-thing then it defeats the point of shows like Frozen
Planet and the more stories like this that arise then the more the audience will become
sceptical. In my opinion, in the future the BBC should be more explicit in the programme
itself when situations like this come about. The shows generally contain a 10-minute
segment at the end, dedicated to revealing how the camera team filmed certain scenes
so it wouldn’t necessarily have to interrupt the flow of the commentary and the viewers
would know exactly what they were seeing. The images of a mother bear and her cubs
are not sights that you see every day, whether in the wild or in a zoo, so either way it’s still
something well worth seeing.