Who knew slime mould could be so beautiful? So we discover in Magic Myxies, one of the oddly mesmerising early nature films lovingly collected in this BFI collection.
It’s hard to imagine a time when programmes uncovering the secrets of the natural world didn’t come with the aural comfort blanket of narration from uncle David Attenborough, but many of those included here are early enough to be devoid of any words at all.
The result – the lobsters, crabs and octopuses undulating past in Fathoms Of The Deep, the rank and file insect nation of The Battle Of The Ants, the spreading flower-patterns of mould in The Plants Of The Pantry – is hypnotic, like a living lava lamp pulsing across the screen, the speckled black and white making the magnified creatures even more alien.
Once we hit the ’30s and the ‘talkies’ arrive, the clipped received pronunciation of the voiceover does its best to anthropomorphise the animals, insects and plantlife, a pair of cuddly and adorably ugly owlets described as “not exactly pretty, and at first were said to resemble their father”, while single cell organisms are given personalities and moods.
Much of the technology looks surprisingly modern, the extreme magnification of pond scum and speeded-up progress of plants not a million miles from what we’re used to seeing on Planet Earth today.
Some of the scientific claims raise the odd disbelieving eyebrow – does the myxomycete slime mould really start life as a vegetable before heading to the water to become an animal, later reverting to its fungal state?
But the earnestness and care that have gone into these films, with what must have been cumbersome equipment, is infectious.
When pioneering scientist Percy Smith is pictured clambering up trees to observe birds while restricted by a dress shirt and three-piece suit, it’s hard to question his dedication.
The booklet is just as detailed and beautifully constructed, introducing the men and women who paved the way for the Terry Nutkins and Chris Packhams of the world, while also subjectively reappraising the claims made in the films using the hindsight of modern science.
Secrets Of Nature is a fascinating look at how nature programming planted its roots, and also at how the filmmaking techniques we’ve grown accustomed to first started out.
Chopping the green bits from a block of cheese may have a whole new level of interest after letting this wash over you.
A magical look back at the early days of natural history films, bolstered with a fab illustrated booklet.