Review: BBC One – Attenborough and the Giant Elephant

An African elephant at home - photograph taken by Frederik Ahlefeldt-L-L

An African elephant at home – photograph taken by Frederik Ahlefeldt-Laurvig-Lehn

This powerful documentary is about a giant and those who knew him. It is fascinating, sad … and so important to watch.

Sir David Attenborough is with us from start to finish. It is he who picks through the evidence to show us the life and times of Jumbo, the celebrity Victorian elephant.

The programme starts with an early photograph of Jumbo as a calf in London Zoo. Beside him is his English keeper, Matthew Scott. They are together until the end of Jumbo’s life, each deeply bonded to the other.

Through old film footage and first hand accounts we are shown the life Jumbo leads as he earns the fortunes of first London Zoo, and then Barnam’s Circus in America. He is a large elephant, bigger than many, and irresistible to the public at a time when Africa and its wildlife are a distant dream for most.

Jumbo, for the most part, seems to bear the fame and attention with generous good grace, but he is not without his night rages. Attenborough and the scientists investigate his trauma to try to find out what causes the upset. First they look at Jumbo’s skeleton for clues as to his physical health, and then the camera is turned to eyewitness accounts, and to current experts, to look at the mental health issues that might trigger his nighttime distress.

I watched this film with my heart gripped. The relationship between Scott and Jumbo is extraordinary, as is the elephant’s capacity for gentleness. It is our unthinking curiosity and ‘kindness’ that is the most disturbing. Thankfully we have Attenborough to point this out to us in a way that makes it bearable to watch.

In the end Jumbo’s death in Canada is tragic but quick, and it reveals as much about the moment as it does about us.

I thought the programme was excellent. It is real and meaningful, and accompanied throughout by the calm, far-sighted authority of Sir David Attenborough.


Here are links to a few other elephant pieces on my site:

Attenborough and the Giant Elephant was shown on BBC One on 10 December – it is available on iPlayer for another 29 days.

An African elephant at home - photograph taken by Frederik Ahlefeldt-L-L

An African elephant at home – photograph taken by Frederik Ahlefeldt-Laurvig-Lehn

Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018

6 thoughts on “Review: BBC One – Attenborough and the Giant Elephant

    • I agree with you … such a clever way to showcase what we now know about elephants, where we went wrong, and what we should hope that we never do again … plus some fascinating social history in amongst the elephants.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. A lovely blog, Georgie, and I was hugely moved and fascinated by this sad tale. The programme ended on a positive note and reassuring that (some) retired circus elephants will have space and company for the remainder of their lives. Incredible that Jumbo’s keeper was with him for all 24 years of his life. Thank goodness, we are now so much more aware of how elephants (and other wildlife) function.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Catherine – I’m so pleased you saw it. I thought I would not be able to bear to watch an elephant’s life behind bars but, thankfully, we were never really asked to. The scrapbook/research approach was so cleverly done that it meant the impact, although still immense, was easier to process. I hope it reaches as wide an audience as possible. Thanks so much for your comment 🙂


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