Planet Earth II, Live in Concert

As the sunset on an unusually warm Sunday evening, the maskless masses took to their seats at the London O2 Arena. We filtered through the isles of metal chairs on concrete flooring, welcomed by soundscapes of birdsong and soft glowing amber lighting. Having arrived uncharacteristically early I sat and listened. The birdsong subtly moved from America to Britain, across to south Europe. Amplified through giant monitors to fill the space, the size of the venue was striking. Ever the optimist, I’d describe it as half full.

The original tour was scheduled for 2020, pushed back to 2021 and then once again to 2022. With rising covid cases and the delayed dates perhaps the lower crowd numbers were to be expected. 

At 19:30 the Planet Earth II Philharmonic Orchestra took to the stage. The sound of an orchestra tuning will never fail to make my hair stand on end. Suddenly you are aware of your fellow audience members, listening together in anticipation. The thrill of knowing you are about to witness something fantastical. Punctuated by an arena of applause the orchestra were joined by their conductor Matthew Freeman. The show could begin.

Having never seen Planet Earth or Planet Earth II before, I wasn’t sure what to expect. In a single word: stunning. I was mesmerised. The introduction shared glimpses of what was to come, swimming sloths, blooming fungi, sweeping cityscapes. All underpinned by the incredible work of Hans Zimmer, Jacob Shea, and Jasha Klebe. The large 4K ultra HD screen was bright, the colours deep and intense. The orchestra swelled, warming the space. For a moment we were totally transported from London to some of the most beautiful, and sometimes remote spaces on earth…And then out stepped Liz Bonnin and Mike Gunton.

For those of you who have seen Planet Earth II. Planet Earth II Live in Concert takes 3-7 minute sequences from each of the episodes and presents them as individual films. Each set with sweeping, dramatic, or sometimes humorous scores. Without Attenborough’s iconic narration, Bonnin is here to guide us through the evening occasionally joined by Mike Gunton – the executive producer of Planet Earth II. 

Spare a clumsy acknowledgement of the Ukrainian war (“but for a few hours at least we can enjoy the wonders of this magical world”) Bonnin’s interjections are inoffensive and heavily scripted. Gunton’s behind the scene insights generally follow the same line – wasn’t that beautiful, yes the technology is amazing. With the films and subsequent orchestra performances only lasting 4-7 minutes at a time the interruptions begin to feel a little jarring.

Delivered to a long-range camera, and projected up onto the screen, we are told “we can experience their world in incredible detail” and “we share this planet with some impossibly beautiful creatures don’t we?”. The words are spoken with sincerity, however, they point to an underlying issue I have been wrestling with. The sensationalisation of the natural world. 

These wildlife films are just that, films staring wildlife instead of actors – not documentaries. They are incredibly heavily edited, with the subjects frequently anthropomorphised for the benefit of a cohesive and dramatic story. Our world is their world. They are not impossibly beautiful, because this beauty is possible on this single earth we share. Grand flashy events such as this support the idea that nature is separate from us, to be viewed and preserved – when in truth the natural world and our world are the same!

This feels a little unfair to point out as it is more a flaw of Planet Earth II than Planet Earth II Live in Concert. The tour has a whole sustainability section that they proudly share with us towards the end of the show. Recycling services are on-site for all cups, there is no physical concert programme, and they have partnered with Atmosfair to reduce and offset the carbon emissions of the tour vehicles. The production team are clearly conscious of the climate crisis.

For the penultimate film, we are treated to a behind the scenes cut of the film crew in action. Sharing footage of the (mostly white, mostly male) film crew running from snakes, laughing with monkeys, and traversing wild terrains. Contextualising the fantastical films within our world, the single world, certainly eased my discomfort at the spectacle of the event. 

With a final quip to the crowd, Bonnin and Gunton lead us to the grand finale, an incredibly rare glimpse into the lives of snow leopards segued into a 15-minute long supercut of scenes from the series of remarkable films we were presented with throughout the night. The orchestra was captivating and as they released us from their velveteen embrace, we could not help but give a standing ovation. The Planet Earth II Philharmonic Orchestra is truly fantastical. 

Would I recommend Planet Earth II Live in Concert? Yes. Resoundingly. I think that a more intimate venue would sedate some of my misgivings, so if you can get seats near the stage I would certainly recommend them. It was a truly wonderful way to spend the evening, I feel my life is richer for it. 

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