fri 14/08/2020

Mountain Gorillas, BBC Two/ Horsepower with Martin Clunes, ITV1 | reviews, news & interviews

Mountain Gorillas, BBC Two/ Horsepower with Martin Clunes, ITV1

Mountain Gorillas, BBC Two/ Horsepower with Martin Clunes, ITV1

Fabulous camerawork turned into Gorilla EastEnders

Horsepower with Martin Clunes (ITV1) should on paper have been dumber than BBC Two’s Mountain Gorillas, two one-hour series that launched last night in thickets of clichés. After all, he doesn’t want to make any claim to be an expert, just to be allowed to be a big soft dad with a horse (well, a dozen maybe) and a horsey wife and daughter. He's an actor, and wants us to love him for his cuteness, therefore it’s important not to be too clever and scare off the ratings. Clunes filled the job admirably, beginning in a gush of reverence that he never lost: “Is there any animal more graceful or powerful than the horse?”

Surely we already knew the answer, for precisely as Clunes (part one) began last night, Mountain Gorillas (part one) was ending, and if by then you didn’t think gorillas were not only more graceful and more powerful than horses, humans and the entire Bolshoi Ballet, it would not be for lack of adulatory effort by the Forces of Beeb.

A magnificent Bristol camera team went to the misty volcanoes and pellucid bamboo forests in the triple storm of conflicting interests that is the meeting point of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where tribal war and human poverty offer staunch opposition to the peaceful existence of the only 700 Mountain Gorillas on Earth. They sought out the stronghold of the largest gorilla family in the world, 46-strong, an extended family that filled mountaintops, ruled by a huge silverback. But having got their incredible access to the kind and limitlessly patient scientists in the region and an undreamt-of intimacy with these weirdly attractive animals, was the producer Nigel Pope content to leave the cameras and scientists and animals to tell the story?

Indeed not. Someone - not a scientist, I’d bet, and almost certainly in cahoots with the PRs of three national tourist agencies - had written a script for Gorilla EastEnders. Patrick Stewart at his most actorish proclaimed how in this programme we would see the love of a father for his motherless child, the intimate lives of one of our closest relatives, a traumatised child caught up in violence between adults, a mother who abandoned her family, a teenaged boy who acts sullen and solitary and seems to be planning to leave home. And the editing duly poured the filmed material into the pre-set soap channels, with much reiteration and twanging of heartstrings on buzz words like "motherless" and "lonely".

silverbackReductive tosh like this ruins visually remarkable films that could do so much to enlighten us about the actual differences between animal and human behaviour. There was not the slightest need for gorilla or human intelligence to be so belittled. The story already had everything. It began with Dian Fossey, the pioneering gorilla expert who was murdered in her Rwandan base in 1985; since then the local town, Ruhengeri, has become the world’s gorilla centre, training zoologists in the “habituation” technique she pioneered, in which over a period of 10 or 12 years they familiarise the wild gorillas with their presence to enable even physical contact without disturbing the animals’ behaviour.

The patience and long-term motivation that this research training implies surely deserved some cursory mention, particularly in such an unstable economic region. And more, this very close encounter technique has produced more than just scientific guardian angels for every one of the 700 remaining gorillas; it has led to what Fossey long resisted, gorilla tourism in order to fund the research. We had a cursory glimpse of quite a lot of tourists mustering for a gorilla trek. Information, please. Education, please.

But the production team were into reality TV, not a nature documentary. Each gorilla had a name, a backstory, a life-crisis. The most plausible was about why the biggest silverback male was called Cantbe. It seems he was born to a gorilla everyone believed to be a male. Fossey exclaimed when told about the birth: “Can’t be!”

Wouldn't it have been more valuable to have had the scientists talking about their observations than the misleadingly anthropomorphic tourist spiel? For one thing, gorillas seem to attract sparky female scientists, and there’s also a new post-Fossey generation of young Rwandan zoologists. What of their deductions about what they watch? What of their family lives? What do they think of gorilla tourism? And weren’t the dangers they face in such a volatile region as interesting and germane as those of the gorillas?

Clunes is not quite the clot he needs to appear to keep the mass audience onside. He is deep down uneasy about racing

Clunes_horsepower_tophatBy comparison the Clunes film was pretty clunky, a strip of very expensive trips - the Daily Telegraph interview on Saturday speculated that this is part of ITV’s inducement to keep him in Doc Martin - pursuing his vapid and inessential questions about “the secret of our bond with these gentle giants” and “what horses still mean to us in the age of the jet”.

However, Clunes is a genial man, a devoted dad to a horsey daughter, and more into children’s gymkhanas these days than late-night bad behaviour. Six foot three himself, he rides a gigantic Shire horse, and one of the most charming episodes was when a horse-whisperer taught him to win his horse Chester’s undying respect and love by staring him down and walking off dismissively. Chester, a capricious buddy until then, meekly trotted after him, close as a shadow.

Like the gorilla team, Clunes flew everywhere but rather more obtrusively PR-fed. He jetted to Dubai to plug the luxurious new Meydan race track, helicoptered to the Mongolian steppes to track down the last wild horses on Earth, the Przewalski Horse, zipped over to southern France to descend deep into primitive caves to see 14,000-year-old wall paintings of horses extremely similar to Przewalskis, flew to Nevada to watch feral Mustangs galloping over snowy mountains, popped back to the Arab desert to admire bedouin pure Arab horses and rounded things off by attending a horse therapy bonding group in Arizona.

Below: horse painting in the Niaux Cave, southern France and Przewalski Horse in Mongolia:


This comes perilously close to vanity TV programme-making, were it not that Clunes is not quite the clot he needs to appear to keep the mass audience onside. He is deep down uneasy about racing: and wondered whether horses enjoy it. In Dubai he elicited the killer observation by a top horse trainer that horses are essentially driven by two natural instincts, fear and competitiveness. Clever trainers play on the “flight” instinct to make them run. The trainer said smilingly, why would a horse put himself through the pain barrier of a race - the jockey agitating on top, the crowd shouting, a whole bunch of other horses pushing past him. He runs because he thinks he’s in danger.

At last something that wasn’t all grinny and woofly and luvvie. Clunes became slightly more subdued when admiring the two phenomenal training talents of the bedouin with his Arab horses, and a gentle Frenchman on a beach with a pack of motley unbridled horses. He wondered if the thing about Chester wasn’t that he was a pampered pet who had no predators, loads of snogs, cuddles and tubs of oatmeal, and basically no job to do other than carry his weighty master about from time to time.

In part two a sterner Clunes is looking at jobs the horse does - eg when camels, donkeys and Eddie Stobart have taken over the burden side of a horse’s life, isn’t it time to find out whether horses are actually working hard enough to justify their feed in this day and age? Very Lib-Con. Chester should worry, unless he can find a way to turn the question back at his master.

Share this article


I thought Horsepower was fantastic and Martin made the program, especially with his enthusiasm. Was lovely to see Martin do something about a huge hobbie of his, so what if he comes across all cuddily, I most certainly would and that's what he is and good on him. He's brilliant.

Horsepower blew me away especially the reference to a horse's ability to see if you have love in your heart. If you don't, they suspect that what exists is the ability to abuse them and they will not entertain you. Humans should learn from this - listen to your instincts.

Am really enjoying watching this, but would love to know what the theme music is, my mum in law would really like to buy a copy of the music but we cant see what it is called anywhere and will we be able to purchase it. shame horsepower is only on twice tho. Its so good.

Martin Clunes can do no wrong in whatever he does!! Brilliant actor lovely guy!!! Jeanie Drake

What a pity that Martin Clunes unquestioningly supported the cruelty of the rodeo where the horse is tormented into bucking which he seemed to find amusing.

Add comment


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters