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Private Life of Plants, The (1995)

Courtesy of BBC

Main image of Private Life of Plants, The (1995)
BBC Natural History Unit; Turner Broadcasting System for BBC1, tx. 11/1-15/2/1995
6 x 60 minutes, colour
ProducersNeil Nightingale
 Keith Scholey
Executive ProducerMike Salisbury
ScriptDavid Attenborough
PhotographyTim Shepherd
 Richard Curtiss
MusicRichard Grassby-Lewis

Presenter: David Attenborough

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David Attenborough presents an eye-opening expedition into the unexpectedly lively world of plants.

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In 1910, Percy Smith's Birth of a Flower, which used the nascent technology of time-lapse photography to show a variety of flowers unfolding, so transfixed audiences that they reportedly insisted on an immediate repeat screening. In the 85 years that separate Birth of a Flower from The Private Life of Plants, highly sophisticated, computer-controlled cameras had replaced the scratch-built equipment of Smith and his fellow pioneers, and the amateur charm of early natural history filmmaking had given way to the polished and scientifically rigorous professionalism associated with David Attenborough and the BBC's Natural History Unit.

The Private Life of Plants was the fifth in the series of epic documentaries Attenborough had begun with 1979's Life on Earth, and by now audiences were primed to expect nothing less than the extraordinary. Plants, as Attenborough explained, "live on a different time-scale" from our own, hence the illusion that they are essentially placid and all but immobile. It was this illusion that the series set out to shatter.

Attenborough's ability to reinstill wonder in the everyday is demonstrated in an early sequence, in which the shoots of the familiar bramble, which grow at up to three inches per day, make their way with astonishing purpose along the forest floor in search of an appropriate path to the sunlight. But there's no shortage of more exotic spectacles. Highlights include the opening of the giant Amazonian water lily, photographed by cameraman Tim Shepherd in a studio kitted out with a resourcefulness that would have delighted Percy Smith (and described in detail in Attenborough's autobiography), and the largest single flower in the world, the Malaysian Rafflesia. The Rafflesia's draws the energy for its indulgent three-foot bloom entirely from the plants upon which it parasitically feeds, making it, Attenborough remarks dryly, the aristocrat of the plant kingdom.

The series' six parts related numerous equally fascinating characteristics, from the ingenious - the orchids which mimic the colours and odour of female bees and wasps in order to attract the males that will pollinate them; to the sinister - the strangler fig, which envelops and chokes the trunk of its host, while simultaneously blocking out the vital sunlight with its foliage and stealing soil nutrients with its voracious roots; to the disgusting - the carnivorous plants which can consume not just insects but even small rodents.

Mark Duguid

Click titles to see or read more

Video Clips
1. The attraction of colour (4:41)
2. Bamboozling the bees (6:49)
3. The giant arum (2:25)
Complete edition - 'Flowering' (48:44)
Birth of a Flower, The (1910)
Blue Planet, The (2001)
Fragile Earth (1982-93)
Life on Earth (1979)