The Unnatural History of London Review: Fox on Box


Eschewing the globe-trotting common to nature programs, The Unnatural History of London takes a decidedly more local approach. Instead of the rolling tundras of Canada, or the rainforests of Congo, we’re shown Billingsgate fish market and a Hackney reservoir. Whilst this episode of Natural World lacks the impressive vistas of an Attenborough nature doc, it more than compensates with charm. Timothy Spall’s narration is perfect for the tone of the programme – gentle, yet gravelly, and avoids the all-too-common telly naturalist trope of semi-hushed urgency.

The Unnatural History of London is an utter delight to watch. The big BBC HD wildlife documentaries may be awe inspiring, but this insight into urbanised animals is a refreshing change of pace and direction, and reminiscent of childhood amateur zoology. Due to the urban environs, the persistent theme is of nature’s relationship with man, and unlike so many of it’s contemporaries, Unnatural History adds a personal touch by featuring enthusiastic observers.

Traders at Billingsgate fish market show the camera a seal which lurks in the waters nearby, utilizing a Pavolvian system to attract the seal by banging on a barrier before throwing in some of their fish. It’s an odd sight, geezers clad in white overalls tossing their wares at a bobbing seal, but its enchanting as anything you’re likely to see. A woman demonstrates her affinity for pigeons, describing how they differ from borough to borough – apparently the Kensington ones eat a lot of smoked salmon. London pigeons rarely appear on people’s list of favourite animals, yet her passion for them is infectious. Foxes feature heavily, an elderly lady flings sausages at them from her tower block flat, and a night watchman lays down dog food in view of his CCTV cameras, hoping to catch a glimpse.

Its an easy criticism to say that a documentary featuring animals you’re likely to encounter would have little to offer, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. When we’re told that you’re likely to see more then you bargain for under the UV lights of a docklands nightclub, I wasn’t expecting scorpions, of which apparently there are several colonies, some of which have a population in the thousands. As a result of Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles, Terrapins became a popular pet. When their owners lost interest, they were discarded into London ponds. They’ve since grown up, and they now hunt ducklings.

If you’ve ever been inquisitive about the fox that pitter-patters down your street, or wondered why you never see pigeon chicks, this is a must see. Fascinating, illuminating, and warming, Unnatural Histories is a real pleasure.