You thought you’d seen enough drama on EastEnders or Love Island, but a ground breaking wildlife series filmed in Africa is set to become the most gripping reality show on TV.
Playing out like a soap opera, there are family feuds, jealous rivalries, struggling single mums, babies born in secret, stroppy teenagers and regular violence.
These aren’t scenes from Albert Square – the stars of BBC1’s Serengeti are Africa’s most charismatic animals, from warthogs to lions and mongoose to cheetahs.
Cameras follow them over a year in their lives. Star Wars actor John Boyega is the “storyteller”, while pioneering technology captures their challenges.
The series is set to a soaring new score from Goldfrapp musician and record producer Will Gregory.
The project is the brainchild of Spice Girls svengali Simon Fuller, who came up with the idea of dramatising animal stories after going on a safari holiday.
In the opening episode, baboon Bakari is said to be “brooding” after losing his girlfriend to a rival, a teenage elephant is “jealous” of its new baby sibling and a young hyena, whose mother has been killed, is described as being “consumed by grief”.
However, not everyone agrees with “humanising” animals.
In recent years naturalist Sir David Attenborough has warned against the practice, which is known as anthropomorphism.
He has argued that only traits that can be proven scientifically should be attributed to wildlife.
But film-maker John Downer says that after shooting 3,500 hours of footage, his camera teams know the animals
well enough to
recognise their emotions. “When I was at uni we were taught that animals were machines – it just seems so old-fashioned,” he said.
“When you spend so much time with animals, dawn to dusk every day, you get so involved with these family groups.
“You see their decision making, their motivations and the emotional drives that are so close to our own.
“People used to bang out the word anthropomorphic but various people were anthropocentric – they just thought we are this superior race.
"They try to distance themselves from animals, but we’re the same. I don’t mind being accused of being anthropomorphic – that’s the whole point.”
Cameraman/producer Phil Dalton agrees. “It’s important to show those emotions to
have an understanding and be able to care for that particular animal group. It’s a way of relating to the natural world which works.
“Nobody can tell you that that’s not the case – categorically – we can only go on our feelings and interpretations.”
Filming took place using 15 systems, including remote spy cams, boulder cams and drones for a vulture’s viewpoint. But there were plenty of challenges while setting up a production camp in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
John reveals: “Lions were regularly seen hunting around us and several times the crew had to run away when an elephant crashed out of the surrounding bushes.
“Once I was walking the path alone and I heard the sound of thundering hooves coming straight for me. Before I knew it, a herd of wildebeest parted in front of me, with a hyena in hot pursuit on their heels.” He adds: “One occupational hazard was retrieving the remote cameras. Hyenas would often walk off with them leaving little clue where they could be found.
“The hyenas’ favourite pastime was dropping them in pools of water.
“But every camera had to be found – you never knew what precious shots could be on them.”
Before the drama stampedes onto our screens, we meet some of the leading characters set to steal our hearts…
Passionate male baboon Bakari starts a deep and jealous rivalry after the female he was devoted to is stolen away by the new, more aggressive, leader of the troop.
Bakari attempts to win back his lost love until tragedy strikes. Now he must struggle to raise the baby he rescued when its mother was killed. He desperately tries to find a female to help him raise the motherless youngster.
Watch out for a moment when Bakari is threatened by the leader of the troop when their rivalry escalates and the baby is put at risk. His only hope is a kind-hearted female called Cheka.
But a trip across a river in order to collect crocodile eggs proves dangerous. And Bakari is later forced to challenge the jealous leader of the baboons in a violent confrontation.
Our leading lady, the brave lioness and devoted mother of four cubs, has broken the golden rules of family life.
She had her cubs with a lion from outside the pride, having the babies in secret. Now she must bring the cubs home, but if the male suspects the cubs don’t belong, he will kill them. Bringing them up alone is far too dangerous so she has to take the risk. There are tense scenes, including a moment when Kali and her sister and their seven cubs realise they are being tracked by Sefu, a male lion from the pride.
He takes their food and then relentlessly pursues them, but what does he want? As the pressure builds, Kali decides that for the sake of her cubs she must confront the male stalker, but it’s a dangerous decision that has near disastrous results.
The young hyena loses her mother in a terrifying attack by some rogue male lions and has to assume the leadership of her family.
She will have to prove herself ready for such a huge responsibility.
Expect nail-biting scenes as the hungry hyena watches on as a young female ostrich attempts to raise an enormous brood of chicks.
Teenage elephant Tembo seems to question his place in the family when his mother Nalla, the matriarch of the group, gives birth to a new baby and he is sidelined.
When Tembo behaves badly and falls out with another herd, Nalla has to decide his future.
Meanwhile, Nalla is worried for the safety of her baby when a group of huge male elephants come to fight over one of the family’s females.
Female zebra Shani is leading her family on the great migration. She is forced to stop temporarily to give birth to her foal, but as soon as he can run, they are off again heading towards the great river.
When the herds finally arrive they find the river teeming with crocodiles and the zebra mum has to decide how and when she can take her newborn across the treacherous water.
Lying in wait and watching them carefully is a large mother crocodile. With no choice but to cross the river, will they survive?
WILD DOG JASARI
A family of wild dogs moves in, led by male Jasari.
With a huge litter of pups, Jasari is ready to take advantage of the coming feast, but until the herds arrive, it is a struggle to survive. He is also facing a battle when Zalika and her clan of hyenas declare war on the young family, hoping to force them out of their territory, sparking a long-running feud.
- The opening episode of Serengeti is on BBC1 tonight at 8pm.
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