The action felt uncomfortably familiar as David Attenborough looked at chimpanzees, the species closest to humans
Power games. Displays of strength. Alliances of convenience. Bluster, bluff and a fair bit of naked aggression. No, not the latest round of Brexit negotiations, or a Donald Trump press conference, but the everyday life of a chimpanzee troop.
Dynasties, David Attenborough’s latest peerless wildlife documentary series, focuses on animals whose social organisation is based on the “extended family”. And by choosing the species closer to homo sapiens than any other for the opener, the makers were guaranteed “human” drama which was often uncomfortably close to our so-called civilised interactions.
The central figure was another David – but he hadn’t become the troop’s alpha male through softly-spoken avuncularity. Old, battle-scarred and formidable, he had led the 30-odd chimps in his troop, dominating their patch of Senegalese jungle, for twice as long as the average alpha’s tenure. “He’s like Marlon Brando,” one of the cameramen observed, “there’s a real swagger to him.”
He was a godfather with plenty of rivals, though. Principally Luther, an ambitious young pretender as prone to brooding silences and sudden bouts of violence as his TV namesake. When the troop’s females came into season it was face-off time with a vengeance for the chaps. And beautiful animals with spookily human expressions and gestures were transformed into whirlwinds of elemental, fangs-bared ferocity.
But the most dramatic moment came off-camera. The crew arrived one morning to find David had been attacked by several males and left for dead while the troop moved on to the next waterhole. He looked unbearably poignant but it wasn’t the crew’s place to interfere. And, remarkably, he rallied. Catching the troop up, he co-opted older males as allies and tried to intimidate Luther into submission, knowing his wounds were so severe that if the youngster called his bluff he was doomed…
As always, the camerawork was gobsmacking, the narrative quietly compelling and the over-riding message passionately but not stridently expressed; beyond the troop’s territory, gold prospecting in the region and human expansion in general is threatening the entire species and it’s up to us to preserve these incredible creatures.