Secret World of Sound with Attenborough, review: TV has finally found a new way to do natural history

David Attenborough explores the sounds of the natural world
David Attenborough explores the sounds of the natural world - Sky

For a long time, blue-chip natural history series have been all about the pictures. That’s because TV is primarily a visual medium. The march of camera technology and pixel density has meant those pictures have just got better and better.
Now natural history is turning to sound. With eerie timing, within days of each other both Sky Nature and Apple TV+ have released series that promise to let you hear our planet like never before. Apple’s is called Earthsounds and narrated by Hollywood actor Tom Hiddleston. Sky’s coup is that they have in their possession the authentic sound of the wild – the voice of David Attenborough.

Secret World of Sound claims “to use advanced audio technology to reveal sounds that we can’t even hear”. See if you can spot the problem in that claim. What does a sound you can’t hear sound like? It means that the producers have to come up with ways of visualising or recreating sounds so that we can hear them. Or see them.

At times in the opening episode, they nailed it. One bravura sequence used macro photography to show how a bee’s wings make the whole insect buzz at just the right frequency to shake loose pollen. It’s a D, in case you want to try it.

David Attenborough
David Attenborough - Sky

At other times though, attempts to show echo location emanating from a dolphin’s head looked like something from a 1960s episode of Doctor Who. I appreciate this kind of synaesthesia is not easy. Still, it is the curse of the marketing department to have told you that you are going to be absolutely knocked flat by what you are about to see… and then you kind of aren’t.

Mostly, Secret World of Sound was overwhelming, rather than just lightly whelming or dubiously overegged. The gulls stomping on the ground to trick the earthworms into thinking it was raining confirmed a lifelong suspicion of gulls. The elephants sensing far-off storms through their big, flared feet were wondrous.

I suspect that arguments about the use of Foley (essentially, ie, making clippety-clop sounds with coconuts when you can’t get close enough to a horse) in natural-history films have set back our response to aural natural history a good few years. This series goes some way to redressing the balance.