Peter Coates: How Blue Planet changed TV and the way we look at the oceans

The Flapjack Octopus found off the California Coast. Photo Credit:BBC

The first series of Blue Planet – which launched the day after the 9/11 attacks – was hugely popular. It was one of the reasons why in 2001 the BBC had its highest viewing figures since audience records began in 1981 – and it overtook ITV for the first time.

But it wasn’t just popular. It’s also hard to overstate just how innovative Blue Planet was or to exaggerate its influence on TV producers.

The series took five years to make, cost £7 million and was at the time the most expensive TV documentary ever made.

The style of commentary and sheer ambition of Blue Planet were all marked departures from previous series produced by the BBC’s Natural History Unit (NHU). It was the first landmark series to take a more cinematic approach to natural history, featuring a film-type musical score and awesome cinematography.

It was also the first landmark to devote the last 10 minutes of each 60-minute programme to a ‘making of’ feature.

These were actually an innovation born out of necessity due to changes in the way BBC channels scheduled programmes. But they turned out to be such a hit with viewers that they’ve become a standard feature of subsequent programmes. Some viewers actually say it’s their favourite bit.
But beyond pioneering a new style of documentary broadcasting, there’s another reason why Blue Planet was a television milestone: the way it placed marine conservation at the heart of the national conversation in a country where nobody lives further than 70 miles from saltwater.

The press pack for the original eight-part Blue Planet includes an interview with series producer, Alastair Fothergill, in which he explains that he stepped down as BBC NHU head  in June 1998 to concentrate on making the series.

That’s how important it was to him to deliver “the first ever comprehensive series on the natural history of the world’s oceans”. And his ambition ensured Blue Planet would bring about a lasting change in public understanding of the embattled condition of the marine environment.

The ridiculously cute sea otters dozing on top of California’s undersea kelp forests were certainly a massive crowd pleaser. But it was how Blue Planet handled other sea creatures that really struck me, particularly in the final episode The Blue Planet: Deep Trouble.

I think this episode, produced by Martha Holmes, who has a PhD in marine biology was a watershed moment. It introduced many viewers to the reality of dwindling fish stocks – and particularly the plight of specific species like Bluefin tuna. As well as confronting us with the destructiveness of modern industrial fishing methods for pretty much the first time.

Marine conservation and ‘sustainable’ fishing is now firmly embedded in the public consciousness. We’re now much more accustomed to asking questions about where the fish in our fish and chips - and sushi and sashimi - comes from.

But before Blue Planet was broadcast fish were mostly out of sight and out of mind.

Landmark natural history productions are sometimes criticized for promoting complacency by giving the impression that all’s hunky dory in the natural world, as they transport us to sublime and pristine locations, apparently untainted by human interference.

But both Blue Planet series refute this argument. For example, the opening episode of Blue Planet II highlighted how melting arctic ice disrupts the lives of walrus. And, as you will soon see, the final episode pulls no punches in its appraisal of the vulnerability of our damaged oceans.
It’s no surprise that the series’ website includes an invitation to “get involved with ocean conservation”. Click on it and you’ll find out more about problems like microplastics, which are present in beauty products and pose a threat to marine life.

Just as importantly, you’ll find out how to become part of the solution.
The current head of the BBC NHU, Julian Hector, told me that he felt both series invited you to get close – “gill by jowl” – with unfamiliar creatures that are usually hidden from view, and to feel the power and beauty of the ocean.

“How poignant it is then, to learn of the marine world’s fragility and our responsibility towards it,” he said.

Blue Planet really is all about making big waves.

Text with input from Susie Painter.

Return to features