Monkey Planet

Orangutan school in Monkey Planet

‘Monkey Planet’ is soon to be airing its second installment of a three part series. The clue is in the name. This is a series about all the different monkeys (and apes, awkwardly) on our planet. Primate planet seems like it should have been the obvious choice; a nice dose of alliterative accuracy.  The series is a bit like ‘who do you think you are’ but hairier, we’re all involved, and the soundtrack includes the Spice Girls, rather than watching a washed­-up celebrity find out they had a sheep­stealer as a great grandfather.

It’s an important message to convey, a reminder that we humans are not so supremely distinct; we belong firmly within the primate family. During the series we meet a whole host of relatives, some are better looking than others, some are more hygienic, some are remarkably randy, and others will prove capable of organising a highly sophisticated plan to hunt you down and eat you. Fairly typical familial relationships­ every family is a dysfunctional one. We witness the ‘human­like’ behaviour of primates across the globe with teeth flossing, cannon­balling, marshmallow toasting, and abstract ­art­ creating. None of this behaviour should be surprising ­ researchers have amassed evidence for years demonstrating the highly developed cognition of many of our primate counterparts; it’s a reflection of our own arrogance that it remains surprising, but nevertheless, it is ­ delightfully so. The footage captured across eleven countries featuring Borneo, Ethiopia and Japan is quite breathtaking, and the corresponding soundtrack is well­thought and engaging.

It is a series that celebrates the family: its diversity  (the proboscis monkey finally gets a look in as a legitimate primate, rather than a play­thing of buzzfeed), and its integral nurturing role; another attribute humans too readily claim as their own. It highlights other parallels too, such as an apparent class system in the Japanese macaques, or the ‘hugging wins friends in high
places’ approach taken by the spider monkeys. There are legitimate objections to nature programmes indulging in anthropomorphic explanations of animal behaviour; it can however, have value if the overriding messages reach a wider audience. At least, in the case of Monkey Planet, objections on these grounds must surely be minimal. It is no giant leap to describe primate behaviour in ‘human’ terms.

Bonobos too were granted the attention they are due. It is explained that they, along with the chimpanzees, are most closely related to humans. Their unchaste sex­fuelled lives were dealt
with in a delicate and understanding manner. This is usually all too easy turf for sensationalising within our own terms of sexual reference; instead it was aptly presented as a daily occurrence for Bonobos with important de­stressing benefits. It’s just a shame he didn’t talk more about lesbian sex though. No, really. The sexual pursuits of Bonobos are not limited to heterosexual possibilities; they frequently engage in all manner of combinations.

George McGavin (identifiable as the clothed primate) can not be faulted for his presentation of the series. His own personal interest in the subject matter allows the marvel of things to be clearly explained, whilst avoiding any possibility of being patronising. He is endearing, and clearly enjoying himself; he knows he’s got the best job in the world, to quote: “I’ve got a macaque on my shoulder flossing his teeth­, you couldn’t make it up.” He has a charismatic, if understated delivery. Beautifully exemplified standing atop one of the tallest trees in the rainforest, lookingdown and describing it as ‘alarming’; or when he exclaimed:  ‘I’ve never seen so much mess in my life. It’s like a teenage sleepover’.

This series is not about lowering humans to their animal ancestry, rather it’s about raising non­human primates to the platform they are entitled to. As George reveals to us the beautiful array, and the extraordinary capabilities, of the primate family, he rightfully suggests that we should be ‘proud to be a primate’.

Watch Monkey Planet here

Monkey Planet is on BBC 1 on Wednesday April 9