Latest reviews of new albums:
The Blue Planet
  • Composed by George Fenton
  • Silva Screen / 55m

The BBC had been producing magnificent natural history documentaries for a number of years but The Blue Planet, first shown in 2001, was a bit of a game-changer.  Producer Alastair Fothergill took a coffee table book approach, looking for magnificent visuals that could be turned into engaging “stories” over the course of a series.  With the authority of David Attenborough’s narration, it was close to perfect and engaged audiences around the world, with similarly-scoped shows to follow from Fothergill and the team in the years ahead like Planet Earth and Frozen Planet.

Musically, the show was a game-changer too.  George Fenton had written music for Attenborough documentaries before (The Trials of Life and Life in the Freezer, which seems in retrospect like a dry run for Frozen Planet).  But there wasn’t much budget for the music and so the scores were largely (if not entirely) synthesised, adding atmosphere but not scope: The Blue Planet was something else entirely and set Fenton off on an entirely new course in his career, working on several shows like this in the years ahead and taking most of them on the road in concert.  Its scale is massive and the BBC Concert Orchestra gives its all, with occasional accompaniment from the Choir of Magdalen College, Oxford.

George Fenton

It’s an exceptional work, this first one of the group, newly remastered and re-released in 2018 by Silva Screen.  The music is stunning, from start to finish.  Fenton scored each episode like a mini-movie, giving each one its own sound (which is a bit lost on the album, which obviously is a highlights compilation – but it certainly works well in this form too).  Things start with the ethereal main title theme (extended for the album), sweeping and beautiful and with the choral presence giving it a bit of a religious feel.  Then we’re straight into “Sardine Run”, dynamic and dramatic and exciting; “Spinning Dolphins”, slightly comic but so elegant; and then the magnificent “Blue Whale”, a real highlight as Fenton captures the power and majesty of the world’s largest creature.

“Thimble Jellyfish” is more electronic, with Fenton choosing to represent some of the weirder creatures on display (many of which being filmed for the first time) with quirky, unusual music; and this continues into “Surfing Snails”.  Next up is “Emperors” – the penguins, of course.  Their story may be often told by now, but seriously, if you’re not moved by it then there’s something wrong with you.  The composer paints a vivid portrait of their plight – he captures the tragedy, the joy, the huge emotional release at the happy ending.

“Turtles” get a bit of a cool groove but actually the piece is surprisingly dark a lot of the time.  The darkness continues into “Sharks” – John Williams rather pushed subsequent composers into a corner when it comes to these creatures, and there is just a hint of that in Fenton’s music, but only a hint.  The strokes are broad indeed, the dramatic flair ever-increasing.  “Stingray” actually offers a bit more light before we come to another real highlight, “Baitball”, a piece of action/suspense music that reaches epic proportions at times.  The brass section gets a good workout, but the whole orchestra shines (kudos to Geoffrey Alexander for his orchestration, excellent throughout).

We venture almost into horror music territory in early moments of “The Deep Ocean”, with atmospheric clangs and some 80s-style electronica giving a suitably jarring feel exactly as intended, before shafts of light start to seep through.  It’s a much more contemplative piece but things get more expansive again straight away in “Elephant Seal March”, which is strong and powerful and very exciting.  The brief “Frozen Oceans” is quite beautifully done and then check out the shimmering romantic strings of “Coral Wonder” – a shade of Bernard Herrmann there (a composer Fenton has offered little homages to in some of his film scores, too).  To finish, there’s something extra special: “Killer Whales”, the series’ most memorable segment, sees everything calm and beautiful for a minute and a half before the drama kicks off, which it does in some style – the action reaches truly epic proportions.

I wrote of the original album in 2001 that this was the finest music I’d ever heard for a documentary series.  I’m much older now and perhaps not wiser, but certainly wider, and the only music I’ve heard since which might negate my claim is that which George Fenton has written for this show’s successors.  (Why isn’t he doing them any more? – it’s just silly.)  The Blue Planet has got the lot: drama, action, thrills, laughs, even a bit of horror.  It is stunning throughout, a truly essential part of any collection.  (Interestingly, when the series was reworked into a film called Deep Blue a couple of years later, Fenton reworked his score too, and recorded it with the Berlin Philharmonic – that album makes a great companion piece.)  The music has been remastered but there’s no additional content on the new release compared with the original; if you didn’t get that one, you should rush out and get this one without any hesitation.

Rating: ***** | |

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  1. Geoff Leonard (Reply) on Monday 19 February, 2018 at 22:28

    Excellent review, James!

  2. John Chambers (Reply) on Tuesday 20 February, 2018 at 04:39

    Great review James! And I’d just reiterate your recommendation of ‘Deep Blue’, a tremendous reinterpretation of the series’ music and, I believe, the first time the Berliner Philharmoniker ever agreed to record a film score.

  3. Rory (Reply) on Wednesday 21 February, 2018 at 19:40


    As a stateside fan, I’m wondering. Do you accept loaned/given discs by mail for review purposes, or even just your own enjoyment? I’d be happy to send you some for (with the twin caveat that this would be my first foray into international shipping, and that there are some I’d want back– though I think I’d be willing to cover shipping both ways).

    Feel free to shoot me an email anytime.

  4. Rory (Reply) on Thursday 5 April, 2018 at 07:29

    Hi James,

    Just an update asking whether or not you got my email(s). No need for an immediate yes or no decision, but I’ve been having difficulty sending emails lately, especially in chain replies, and I wanted to see if at least one had gone through.

    Sorry for ridiculously delayed response.