There are only 20 days left to watch so, ironically, it is with some urgency that I find my tv viewing on a bit of a loop. First shown on the 4th May, Dawn Chorus: the Sounds of Spring, is one of five programmes from BBC4’s Go Slow series. Like other programmes in the series, it is leisurely, lacks any voiceover, just letting the subjects speak for themselves. Produced and directed by Nigel Paterson, recorded by Chris Watson, the programme, as the blurb says, is ‘uninterrupted and unspoiled, the birdsong of sunrise in all its glory’. Filmed during late April, the hour of viewing covers three locations, of different habitat, in south-west England: Yarner Wood on the edge of Dartmoor; Aylesbeare Common, a lowland heath in East Devon; and Bull Meadow Park, a small urban park in Exeter. The style of presentation is the same in each place: we open in pre-dawn’s near-silence, where a waning moon’s sickle accompanies the seep of first light. In both Yarner Wood and Aylesbeare Common the surreal hoot, a tremolo, of tawny owl heralds the change. There a couple of early shots of Chris all geared up and and watchful. Then his presence withdraws completely. We are left with the birds.
In each location a robin is the first songster to open the chorus. The name of each bird, English and Linnaean, appears on the screen to introduce it. Then we are left to make our own acquaintance. Should it reappear, in another time and place, it is assumed that we have some familiarity, some memory, of the introduction. We are given enough information to orient ourselves: time and place; a short silent comment on relevant facts. It is enough to cue us in, but it doesn’t intrude. We are left to watch and listen in real time. The sun peeps over the horizon and we bask. It is the closest thing to being there that I have experienced in a ‘wildlife’ film. Because this isn’t just about wildlife, although, of course, the birds are wild; and wild birds are the most familiar form of wildlife that we have; but this film is also about experiencing the moment. It is meditative, almost languid. The filming is superb: Yarner Wood is in the that stage of incipient leaf, pale and fresh; Aylesbeare common is misted, then golden in sunshine; and Bull Meadow park with its creaking swings, its railings, its border of terraces, the domesticity of that line of parked cars, is poignant; in its own way as fragile and beautiful as the more natural habitats.
We watch as birds flitter and forage between bouts of singing. A crow investigates a littering of take-out. A snail creeps along a park bench. A stonechat preens. A blue tit lands with a beakful of dried grasses. A beetle clambers through moss. Cobwebs drip with moisture. A bee fuzzles at a flower. A vapour-trail bisects a blue sky. A car leaves the parked line. Children walk to school. Through it all the birds are singing, doing their own thing, getting on with their own lives. That is what the story is, if there is a story: how all these lives are being lived in parallel; how we all inhabit the same world. The tv aerial is as much perch for that jackdaw as it is a receiver, a connection, for the humans bricked up below it. And yet how that same aerial offers this chance to restore us to a basic, primal yet utterly ordinary experience. So folks, it is for the likes of this that we pay our TV licence. Get your money’s worth. If you haven’t had, or won’t have, the chance to immerse yourself in your own local dawn chorus, don’t miss this one. It’s gorgeous. It’s one hour of your life you’ll be glad you were up for.