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TV review: Primates and Hubble: The wonders of space revealed

01 May 2020


Primates (BBC 1, Sunday evenings) is not about the Archbishops of Canterbury and York

Primates (BBC 1, Sunday evenings) is not about the Archbishops of Canterbury and York

I WAS delighted to see BBC1 announcing — no doubt in response to my constant carping about its disgraceful lack of serious interest in the Church of England — a new three-part series all about the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Unfortunately, Primates (Sunday evenings) turns out to focus on quite another life-form: our nearest relatives in the animal kingdom.

The order is made up of more than 500 species, and this marvellous film astonishes in the diversity and range across this classification. Lest we fondly imagine that the use of tools is the key distinction between Homo sapiens and all the others, the first sequences showed how bearded capuchins break off exactly the right twig to prize hapless lizards out of rock crevices to make a tasty lunch, and have learned how to select just the right stone to crack open the shells of cashew nuts.

Survival skills are not just about food, and ruling the roost is not just about strength and aggression: moving footage showed a huge mountain gorilla playing fondly with his tiny offspring. Such tender emotional attachment impresses the females so much that caring fathers produce five times as many babies.

Our cousins can also teach us teamwork and selfless courage: a troop of yellow baboons rescued, amazingly, a badly wounded brother from a leopard’s deadly embrace. This first programme felt slightly like a catalogue: one wonderfully photogenic sequence after another, lacking a clear connecting narrative to make sense of all this diversity. How do they relate to each other — and to us?

So far, only our own species has produced anything like the subject-matter of Hubble: The wonders of space revealed (BBC2, Friday), marking the 30th anniversary of the launch of the space telescope. If Primates helps us to map our location within the animal kingdom, Hubble puts our whole planet, solar system, and galaxy into its proper cosmic perspective.

Over four decades, its images, beamed back as it orbits 15 to 16 times a day, 540 miles above the earth, have crucially shaped our understanding of the universe — perhaps, above all, in proving its essentially dynamic and evolving nature: however much the thought of the starry heavens as fixed and unchanging might comfort us, Hubble demonstrates the opposite, showing, for example, unimaginably stupendous cauldrons of gases coalescing to form a new star.

I had not appreciated how much the telescope had been designed to be updated by successive visits from the space shuttle, replacing obsolete with new technology, constantly improving its performance. The most encouraging revelation was how they resolved the jeopardising of the entire final overhaul: a single crucial bolt’s thread had stripped.

After a day of agonising analysis by NASA’s finest, they finally recommended that the astronaut try simply yanking the section free. Brute force succeeded, thus demonstrating primates’ superiority — or perhaps not?

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