Casting for A-list stars is usually reserved for high-end premium dramas but it was also a challenge for Sir David Attenborough’s latest big-budget wildlife series Dynasties. In the case of the BBC series, they were searching for the right animals to showcase in the five-part series.
For the first episode, they found their own Marlon Brando, a chimpanzee called David. He is an alpha-male, the king of his patch with a slew of female admirers but also a raft of male challengers, including Luther, who wanted to take the top spot and attempted to do so in a rather violent way.
Dynasties, which is a co-production with BBC America, highlights five of the world’s most celebrated but endangered animals, as they do whatever it takes to survive and protect the next generation. The show follows a different animal each episode at the most critical period in their lives. Animals include chimpanzees, lions, hunting dogs, tigers and emperor penguins as they are determined to hold on to power and protect their family and territory.
Mike Gunton, executive producer and creative director at BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit, says the series was filmed in an entirely different way to shows such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet, with more time spent living with each animal. “It was quite a risky thing to do. Many of us had worked on those sequenced shows and you spend a month with those creatures and you see an insight into a very short window of their lives. The frustration is that you leave them and you know their complex story is begging to be told [more]. This was an opportunity to tell those longer stories, more in depth and really feel part of these animals’ lives. We effectively casted the stories. One of things that appealed to us was to tell a slightly different narrative. It’s testament to the incredible natural history skill of the team that they were always there for the key moments,” he said.
Like with Blue Planet II’s drive to reduce plastic usage, Dynasties highlights the issue of space as humans encroach on the areas where animals live. Sir David Attenborough says that he believes showing people what is going on is the best way to drive change. “From the South Pole to West Africa, the common concern is space because there is an encroachment of the human population and that’s the case for every episode, apart from maybe the Antarctic. There is an acceptance that these animals are under pressure from humans. How do you solve this? It’s raising people’s passion and belief and desire to recognise that animals have a right to space. The biggest problem is in India, [where] tigers hunt human children so people living alongside tigers have it tough,” he adds.
But Gunton admits that “space is not as sexy as plastic”. “It’s hard to get your head around, it’s a much bigger issue so bringing attention to it through the individual struggles of these animals lives, that’s a very good way.”
Natural history programmes often take years to produce – Dynasties took around four years – so can become more challenging as the BBC faces a funding crisis. Gunton says that the impact, and high ratings, that these programmes bring mean that the BBC strongly supports their development. “It’s often said that [wildlife docs] are a jewel in the crown of the BBC’s output. We have a number of these types of projects looking forward quite a way in the future and I think that’s unique, I doubt there’s another genre that has commitments this far out. That’s thanks to the BBC’s commitment and the licence fee’s commitment to these kind of shows and it’s only the BBC that is doing it.”
Director General Tony Hall admits that they are a risky endeavor, but that they are worth it.
“Our natural history teams never cease to amaze and inspire,” he said. “It’s forty years since Sir David Attenborough invented the first natural history landmark, Life on Earth, and since then he and our NHU have created a new form of event television. They keep pushing the boundaries.”
The show will air on BBC One later this autumn and will be followed by a simulcast across BBC America, AMC, IFC and SundanceTV on Saturday January 19. It has also been co-produced by France Télévisions and China’s Tencent.
It will also roll out globally after BBC Studios Distribution closed a raft of deals with the likes of Discovery in Latin America, WDR in Germany, Telefonica in Spain and Blue Ant Media in Canada.
Nick Percy, EVP Western Europe at BBC Studios, told Deadline that it performed well at the recent Mipcom market in Cannes. “There’s been huge interest in both as there has for our new natural history launch Dynasties, which also caused a stir. Dynasties stood out in market where we heard buyers express disappointment with the lack of good quality factual and factual entertainment content available generally – an area where our catalogue really stands out.”