Life (British TV series)

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Life title card (BBC version)
Series title card from UK broadcast
GenreNature documentary
Narrated byDavid Attenborough (BBC)
Oprah Winfrey (Discovery)
Juanes (Discovery en Español)
ComposerGeorge Fenton
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes10
Executive producerMike Gunton
Running time59 minutes
Production companiesBBC Natural History Unit
Open University
Original networkBBC One
Picture format16:9 1080p (HDTV) (Blu-ray)
16:9 1080i (HDTV) (HD broadcast)
16:9 576i (SDTV) (SD broadcast)
Audio formatDTS-HD HR 5.1 (Blu-ray)
Dolby Digital 5.1 (HD broadcast)
Stereo (SD broadcast)
Original release12 October (2009-10-12) –
14 December 2009 (2009-12-14)

Life is a British nature documentary series created and produced by the BBC in association with The Open University. It was first broadcast as part of the BBC's Darwin Season[1] on BBC One and BBC HD from October to December 2009.[2] The series takes a global view of the specialised strategies and extreme behaviour that living things have developed in order to survive; what Charles Darwin termed "the struggle for existence". Four years in the making, the series was shot entirely in high definition.[3]

Life premiered on 12 October 2009 in the United Kingdom consisting of ten 50-minute episodes. The opening programme gives a general introduction to the series, a second look at plants, and the remainder are dedicated to some of the major animal groups. They aim to show common features that have contributed to the success of each group, and to document intimate and dramatic moments in the lives of selected species chosen for their charisma or their extraordinary behaviour. A ten-minute making-of feature Life on Location aired at the end of each episode, taking the total running time to 60 minutes.

Life is produced by the BBC Natural History Unit and The Open University. It is distributed under licence by the BBC in over 50 other countries, including by the Discovery Channel in the United States and Skai TV in Greece. The original script was written and narrated by David Attenborough.


Production team[edit]

Life was the first series commissioned by the then Network Controller of BBC One, Peter Fincham, just weeks after he took up the post in March 2005.[4] It was reportedly one of the most expensive documentaries ever ordered by the broadcaster, with a budget of £10 million (though the BBC have never confirmed this figure).[5] The Natural History Unit's production team includes series producer Martha Holmes (Life in the Freezer, The Blue Planet) and executive producer Mike Gunton (Galápagos, Life in the Undergrowth). Individual episodes were produced by Rupert Barrington, Adam Chapman, Martha Holmes, Neil Lucas, Patrick Morris and Ted Oakes. The specially-commissioned score was composed by George Fenton and performed by the Band of Life. The opening titles and brand imaging were created by Burrell Durrant Hifle.

In February 2007, Gunton revealed that the BBC were looking for a new narrator for the series owing to Attenborough's imminent retirement.[5] However, later that year it was announced that the veteran narrator would be collaborating on both this series and the forthcoming Frozen Planet.[6]


The first year of production was spent researching possible stories for the series. The Life team contacted scientists and experts around the world in search of new discoveries to film, and new approaches to familiar subjects. Nearly three years of filming followed, involving 150 shoots on all seven continents, many of them full-scale expeditions to remote wilderness areas.[7]

New camera technology was used to build on the cinematic techniques first employed in Planet Earth, notably the pioneering use of stabilised helicopter-mounted cameras. The Life crew succeeded in using gyroscopic stabilisation to create steady shots from moving vehicles, even on rough terrain, allowing the cameras to track alongside reindeer and elephant herds for the first time. Miniature high-definition cameras were used extensively for the "Insects" programme. In the forests of Mexico, the crew erected a spider's web of cables in the canopy to give the sense of flying alongside millions of monarch butterflies. In Zambia, they filmed from a hot air balloon to avoid disturbing the huge flocks of straw-coloured fruit bats.[8]

Following recent debate[9][10] about the use of artifice in natural history programmes, the BBC were more candid about sequences which had not been filmed in the wild. Close-ups of wild clownfish would have disturbed their natural behaviour, so captive animals were filmed in an aquarium at a Welsh university.[11]

Despite the best efforts of the film-makers, some sequences ended up on the cutting room floor. Scientists in Arctic Scandinavia had accumulated enough evidence to suggest that golden eagles were the main predators of reindeer calves, but an attack had never been witnessed. After two summers tracking the herds in Finland, cameraman Barrie Britton finally filmed a hunt in full. However, the attack had taken place nearly a mile away, and the footage was too distant to be considered for broadcast.[12]

Television firsts[edit]

The budget and timescale for the series enabled the producers to set ambitious filming challenges, and expedition crews brought back several sequences which have never been shown before.

Some involved highly specialised hunting behaviour that has only recently been discovered. In the shallow, muddy waters of Florida Bay, one pod of bottlenose dolphins have learned a unique hunting technique called mud-ring feeding. Aerial photography shows the lead dolphin circling a shoal of mullet, flicking its tail flukes to disturb mud on the seabed. The fish trapped inside the mud ring panic and leap out of the water to escape the trap, straight into the waiting mouths of the pod.[13] In Kenya's Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, three cheetah brothers have learned to take on prey many times their own size. They are filmed bringing down an ostrich, but also hunt zebra, eland and oryx.[14] A film crew travelled to the Falkland Islands to follow up reports of an orca that had learned to take elephant seal pups from a nursery pool. On the Indonesian island of Rinca, the first footage of Komodo dragons hunting a water buffalo corroborated new scientific evidence suggesting the dragons used venom to kill their prey.

Other sequences had previously proved too difficult to film. The humpback whale heat run has been dubbed "the biggest battle on Earth", but the whales move so fast that underwater cameras struggle to keep up. The Life crew used cameras mounted on helicopters and boats along with a team of free-divers to follow the action.[8] The biggest filming challenge was to show a year in the life of an oak woodland using timelapse photography. After capturing real-world footage of a Devon wood, the crew rebuilt the entire scene in a studio in Exeter and digitally superimposed 96 separate layers of footage to create the final one-minute sequence. The whole project took two years.[15]

Super high-speed cameras capable of shooting up to 8,000 frames per second were used to slow down dramatic action. For the first time, these were used underwater to reveal the hunting behaviour of sailfish.[16] They were also used to show 'Jesus Christ lizards' running on water, the courtship flight of the marvellous spatuletail and flying fish leaving the water. The first footage showing Antarctic killer whales hunting a crabeater seal, but the seal survived.

The pebble toad's strange escape method had been caught on tape for the first time.


Life debuted on British television on 12 October 2009, with a standard definition broadcast on BBC One and a high-definition simulcast on BBC HD.

The series was sold to international broadcasters by the BBC's commercial arm, BBC Worldwide, and marketed under the BBC Earth brand used for all BBC-produced natural history content. The global success of Life was noted as one of the key factors behind BBC Worldwide's record profits in 2010.[17]

The series received its North American premiere on Discovery Channel Canada on 15 November 2009.[18] In the US, the series premiered on 21 March 2010 on Discovery Channel with Attenborough's narration replaced by Oprah Winfrey reading from a different script tailored to American audiences.[19] Each episode was curtailed in length to accommodate commercial breaks. The behind-the-scenes shorts were dropped for the same reason, and instead were compiled into an eleventh episode.

Life was also acquired by several Latin American broadcasters[20] and debuted on 18 March 2010 on Discovery Channel Latin America and Discovery HD Theater, with narration by Colombian singer Juanes.[21]

In Israel the series aired in July 2010 as part of the new IBA channel Channel 1 HD and it was narrated by Orna Banay.

In Turkey, the series aired in May 2010 on NTV (Turkey). It was narrated by famous Turkish actor Tuncel Kurtiz.

In Australia, an edited version (without Life on Location) with Attenborough's narration aired on ABC1 each Sunday at 7:30 pm from 25 July 2010.[22]

In Croatia the series aired each Saturday from 2 October 2010 on HRT1.


"Our planet may be home to 30 million different kinds of animals and plants, each individual locked in its own lifelong fight for survival. Everywhere you look, on land or in the ocean, there are extraordinary examples of the lengths living things go to stay alive."

— David Attenborough's opening narration
No.TitleOriginal air dateUK viewers
1"Challenges of Life"12 October 2009 (2009-10-12)[23]6.84 million viewers[24] (26.4% audience share)[25]
"Challenges of Life" documents the capture of a young chinstrap penguin by a leopard seal (pictured).

The opening episode introduces the series by showing examples of extraordinary feeding, hunting, courting and parenting behaviour from across the animal kingdom and around the globe.

2"Reptiles and Amphibians"19 October 2009 (2009-10-19)[26]4.93 million viewers[24] (18.9% audience share)[27]
"Reptiles and Amphibians" documents how a group of Komodo dragons (pictured) kill and eventually eat a water buffalo using venom.

In the opening sequence, an aerial camera zooms in on a solitary Komodo dragon from afar. This, states Attenborough, is the last place on Earth still ruled by reptiles. Though they may seem primitive, reptiles and amphibians still thrive thanks to diverse survival strategies. In Venezuela, a pebble toad evades a tarantula by free-falling down a steep rock face. The basilisk, nicknamed the Jesus Christ lizard, can literally run on water and the Brazilian pygmy gecko is so light it does not break the surface. Reptiles are cold-blooded, and some have developed unusual strategies to absorb heat. Namaqua chameleons darken the skin of the side of their body facing the sun.

3"Mammals"26 October 2009 (2009-10-26)[28]5.55 million viewers[24] (21.9% audience share)[29]
A breaching humpback whale, a species featured in "Mammals".

Intelligence, warm blood and strong family bonds have made mammals the most successful group of animals on the planet: they can even survive the Antarctic winter. Here, a Weddell seal leads her pup on its first swim beneath the ice. In East Africa, a rufous sengi uses a mental map of the pathways it has cleared to outwit a chasing lizard. A young aye-aye takes four years to learn how to find and extract beetle grubs, food no other mammal can reach. Reindeer move through the Arctic tundra, making the longest overland migration of any animal. Other mammals have evolved different ways of travelling long distances: ten million fruit bats (straw-coloured fruit bats) congregate at Zambia's Kasanka swamps to gorge on fruiting trees. Mammals employ different strategies to find food. At night on the African savannah, hyenas force lions off a kill through sheer weight of numbers, whilst in the Arctic, dozens of polar bears take advantage of a bowhead whale carcass. Raising young is another important factor in mammals' success.

  • Coatis and meerkats form social groups to share the burden of childcare. A first-time African elephant mother needs the experience of the herd's matriarch to get her young calf out of trouble. The largest animals in the ocean are also mammals. The seas around Tonga are both a nursery and mating ground for humpback whales. A female leads her potential suitors on a chase, the males battling for dominance behind her. Life on Location follows the never-before filmed humpback heat run.[28]
4"Fish"2 November 2009 (2009-11-02)[30]4.56 million viewers[24] (18.1% audience share)[31]
"Fish" documents the breeding cycle of a clownfish, pictured hiding amongst the tentacles of an anemone.

Fish, the most diverse group of vertebrate animals, thrive in the world's rivers, lakes and oceans. Slow-motion footage reveals the behaviour of some of the fastest fish in the sea, sailfish and flying fish. The latter gather in large numbers to lay their eggs on a floating palm frond, which sinks under the weight. The eggs of weedy sea dragons, found in the shallow waters off southern Australia, are carried by the male. In the fertile seas of the western Pacific, competition is fierce.

5"Birds"9 November 2009 (2009-11-09)[32]4.33 million viewers[24] (17.6% audience share)[33]
"Birds" shows how lammergeiers in the Simien Mountains collect bones from animal carcasses and smash them by dropping them on to rock slabs.

Birds, whose feathers have made them extremely adaptable and enabled them to fly, are the subject of programme five. The courtship flight of the marvellous spatuletail hummingbird is shot at high speed to slow down its rapid wing beats. The male must rest every few seconds due to the energy needed to display his elongated tail feathers.

6"Insects"16 November 2009 (2009-11-16)[34]3.80 million viewers (14.6% audience share)[35]
Two billion monarch butterflies (pictured) hibernate in a small area of alpine forest in Mexico.

The sixth episode enters the world of insects. By assuming a variety of body shapes and incorporating armour and wings, they have evolved diverse survival strategies and become the most abundant creatures on Earth.

  • In Chilean Patagonia, male Darwin's beetles lock horns and hurl their rivals from the treetops in search of a mate. A damselfly's chance to mate and lay eggs can be cut abruptly short by a leaping frog. Monarch butterflies use their wings to power them on an epic migration to their hibernating grounds in the forests of Mexico's Sierra Madre. Many insects carry chemical weapons as a form of defence. High-speed cameras show oogpister beetles squirting formic acid into the face of an inquisitive mongoose and bombardier beetles firing boiling caustic liquid from their abdomens. Some insects gain an advantage through co-operation. When an American black bear destroys a bee's nest, the colony survives by carrying their honey to a new site. Japanese red bug nymphs will move to a different nest if their mother fails to provide sufficient food.
  • In the Australian Outback, male Dawson's bees fight to the death over females emerging from their nest burrows. As a result, all will die, but the strongest mate most often.
  • Argentina's grasscutter ants form huge colonies five million strong. They feed on a fungus which they cultivate underground, in nest structures which have natural ventilation. Life on Location documents the Mexico crew's attempts to rig up aerial camera shots of the awakening monarch butterflies.[34]
  • Other animals: Mayfly, alkali fly, Wilson's phalarope (a bird), devil rider, Japanese red bug.
  • Other locations: Mono Lake.
7"Hunters and Hunted"23 November 2009 (2009-11-23)[36]4.04 million viewers (15.9% audience share)[37]
A killer whale's unique hunting strategy is revealed in "Hunters and Hunted".

Mammals have adopted diverse strategies to hunt their prey and evade predators. As well as revisiting the cheetah and dolphin hunts first shown in episode one, the programme shows how a sure-footed ibex kid escapes a hunting fox by bounding across a precipitous mountainside above the Dead Sea. Slow motion footage reveals the fishing behaviour of greater bulldog bats in Belize and brown bears at an Alaskan river mouth, the latter awaiting the return of spawning salmon. The play-fighting of juvenile stoats helps train them to run down prey such as rabbits, which are many times their own size. The alpha female of an Ethiopian wolf pack stays at the den to wean her cubs while other adults hunt rats on the highland plateau. The extraordinary nasal appendage of a star-nosed mole enables it to hunt successfully underground and, by using bubbles to detect its prey, underwater.

  • In Bandhavgarh National Park, a tiger's stealthy approach to a group of feeding chital deer is thwarted when a langur, watching from above, raises the alarm. The final sequence shows a female killer whale taking elephant seal pups from their nursery pool in the Falkland Islands. This is a risky strategy as she could easily become beached in the shallow water. She is the only killer whale known to hunt this way, but her calf shadows her moves, ensuring her knowledge will be passed on. Also close by were the film crew, who reveal how the sequence was shot for Life on Location.[36]
8"Creatures of the Deep"30 November 2009 (2009-11-30)[38]3.95 million viewers (15.6% audience share)[39]
The Australian giant cuttlefish is one of the marine invertebrates featured in "Creatures of the Deep".

Marine invertebrates, the descendants of one billion years of evolutionary history, are the most abundant creatures in the ocean. In the Gulf of California, packs of Humboldt squid make night-time raids from the deep to co-operatively hunt sardines. Beneath the permanent Antarctic sea ice of McMurdo Sound, sea urchins, red sea stars and nemertean worms are filmed scavenging on a Weddell seal pup carcass.

  • A fried egg jellyfish hunts amongst a swarm of Aurelia in the open ocean, spearing its prey with harpoon-like tentacles. In the shallows off South Australia, hundreds of thousands of spider crabs gather annually to moult. Many invertebrates have simple nervous systems, but giant cuttlefish have large brains and complex mating habits. Large males use flashing stroboscopic colours and strength to win a mate, whereas smaller rivals rely on deceit: both tactics are successful. A giant Pacific octopus sacrifices her life to tend her single clutch of eggs for six months when she gets old.
  • As a Pycnopodia starfish feeds on her remains, it comes under attack from a king crab. Coral reefs, which rival rainforests in their diversity, are the largest living structures on Earth and are created by coral polyps. Porcelain crabs, boxer crabs and orangutan crabs are shown to illustrate the many specialised ways of catching food on a reef. Marine invertebrates have a lasting legacy on land too – their shells formed the chalk and limestone deposits of Eurasia and the Americas. Life on Location documents the recording of Antarctic sea life and the birth of a reef.[38]
  • Other animals: Pompeii worm, brain coral, Christmas tree worm, emperor shrimp.
9"Plants"7 December 2009 (2009-12-07)[40]4.30 million viewers[24] (18.0% audience share)[41]
The dragon's blood tree survives in semi-desert conditions by collecting moisture from mist and fog.

Plants endure a daily struggle for water, nutrients and light. On the forest floor where light is scarce, time-lapse shots show ivies and creepers climbing into the canopy using sticky pads, hooks or coiled tendrils. Epiphytes grow directly on the topmost branches of trees. Their bare roots absorb water and trap falling leaves, which provide nutrients as they decompose. Animals can also be a source of food: the sundew traps mosquitoes with sticky fluid, and venus flytraps close their clamshell leaves on unwitting insects. Sandhill milkweed defends itself against feeding monarch caterpillars by secreting sticky latex from its leaves. The milkweed endures the onslaught because, like most plants, it produces flowers, and the newly hatched butterflies pollinate them.

After flowering, brunsvigia plants in South Africa are snapped off by strong winds, sending their seed heads cartwheeling across the ground.

  • In Borneo, Alsomitra is a plant that produces winged seeds!
  • Saguaro cacti produce succulent fruit to attract desert animals which ingest and disperse their seeds. Some plants have adapted to survive environmental extremes. Dragon's blood trees and desert roses thrive on arid Socotra, and coastal mangrove trees survive by filtering salt from seawater. Bristlecone pines live above 3,000 m in North America's mountains. They have a six-week growing season and can live for 5,000 years, making them the oldest living things on Earth. Grasses are the most successful of all plants. Of their 10,000 varieties, two cover more land than any other plant: rice and wheat. Life on Location goes behind the scenes of a time-lapse sequence in an English woodland. Because actually growing plants outdoors would prove a challenge to film (with constantly changing conditions) this scene used plants grown in a studio on a bluescreen duplicating a real outdoor backdrop. The entire process took two years to make.[40]
10"Primates"14 December 2009 (2009-12-14)[42]5.14 million viewers[24] (21.9% audience share)[43]
Japanese macaques are the most northerly primates, enduring winter temperatures of −20 °C (−4 °F) in the Japanese Alps.

Intelligence, curiosity and complex societies have enabled primates to exploit many different habitats. In Ethiopia, male hamadryas baboons restore discipline after a skirmish with a rival troop. In Japanese macaque society, only those members from the correct bloodlines are permitted to use thermal springs in winter; others are left out in the cold. Examples of primate communication include a silverback gorilla advertising his territory though vocalisations and chest-beating, and the piercing calls of spectral tarsiers which help keep their group together. In Thailand's rainforests, lar gibbons use song to reinforce sexual and family bonds. By contrast, ring-tailed lemurs in Madagascar broadcast sexual signals using scent glands. A young orangutan's upbringing equips it with all the skills it needs to survive in the forest, including finding food, moving through the canopy and building a shelter.

Inside Life[edit]

A complementary children's TV series, Inside Life, aired on the CBBC Channel and followed young volunteers as they go behind the scenes with the Life production team and accompany the film-makers on expeditions in the field.[44] It began airing on 13 October 2009.

One Life[edit]

In 2011, BBC Earth used Attenborough's footage of animals to create a documentary film called One Life, narrated by Daniel Craig.


The series was nominated for six Primetime Emmy Awards in July 2010. These included a nomination for Outstanding Nonfiction Series along with selections in a number of technical categories.[45] The episode "Challenges of Life" went on to win the Outstanding Cinematography for Nonfiction Programming award.

In June 2010, Life won two Rockies at the Banff World Television Festival for best wildlife and natural history programme and best documentary.[46][47][48]

In October 2010, Life was awarded the Jury's Special Prize at the Wildscreen Festival.[49]

DVD, Blu-ray Disc and book[edit]

The series was released in the UK as Region 2, four-disc DVD (BBCDVD3068) and Blu-ray Disc (BBCBD0055) box sets by 2Entertain on 30 November 2009.[50][51] Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray Discs of both the BBC and Discovery versions of the series were released on 1 June 2010. In Australia, a Region 4, four-disc DVD and Blu-ray Disc was released by ABC DVD/Village Roadshow on 7 October 2010.[52]

A hardcover book written by producers Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton accompanies the television series. Life was published in the UK by BBC Books (ISBN 9781846076428) on 1 October 2009.[53]


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  18. ^ Daswani, Mansha (23 October 2009). "BBC Worldwide announces Canadian slot for Life".
  19. ^ Stelter, Brian (2 November 2009). "Oprah to Narrate Nature Series on the Discovery Channel". The New York Times.
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  21. ^ "Juanes narró 'Vida', un nuevo documental de Discovery y la BBC". El Tiempo. 15 March 2010.
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  23. ^ a b Produced by Martha Holmes (12 October 2009). "Challenges of Life". Life. BBC. BBC One.
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  30. ^ a b Produced by Adam Chapman (2 November 2009). "Fish". Life. BBC. BBC One.
  31. ^ "Poor start for Pamela Anderson series". 3 November 2009.
  32. ^ a b Produced by Patrick Morris (9 November 2009). "Birds". Life. BBC. BBC One.
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  34. ^ a b Produced by Rupert Barrington (16 November 2009). "Insects". Life. BBC. BBC One.
  35. ^ "Katie Price 'Celeb' entrance draws 9.4m". 17 November 2009.
  36. ^ a b Produced by Adam Chapman (23 November 2009). "Hunters and Hunted". Life. BBC. BBC One.
  37. ^ "9.5m see Katie Price quit 'I'm A Celeb'". 24 November 2009.
  38. ^ a b Produced by Neil Lucas (30 November 2009). "Creatures of the Deep". Life. BBC. BBC One.
  39. ^ "'FlashForward' hits series low of 2m". 1 December 2009.
  40. ^ a b Produced by Neil Lucas (7 December 2009). "Plants". Life. BBC. BBC One.
  41. ^ "'I'm A Celeb' special draws 6.9 million". 8 December 2009.
  42. ^ a b Produced by Patrick Morris (14 December 2009). "Primates". Life. BBC. BBC One.
  43. ^ "'Move Like Michael Jackson' opens to 637k". 15 December 2009.
  44. ^ "BBC Press Pack – Inside Life – Introduction". BBC Press Office. 18 September 2009.
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  46. ^ Strauss, Marise (15 June 2010). "U.K. dominates Banff's Non-Fiction Awards".
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  49. ^ "Wildscreen Festival 2010: Panda Award Winners". Archived from the original on 19 April 2012. Retrieved 18 November 2010.
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  53. ^ Life (hardcover), by Martha Holmes and Mike Gunton. ASIN 1846076420.

External links[edit]