Putting 'Planet Earth' in One 5-Disc Package
Documentary producer Huw Cordey helped create the staggeringly ambitious BBC series Planet Earth. The series was five years in the making and was shot in 62 countries on every continent. It was broadcast in the United States on The Discovery Channel, and is now available on DVD.
Other segments from the episode on May 22, 2007
DATE May 22, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Don Rickles on his memoirs, "Rickles' Book," his mother
and his relationships through the years
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of unidentified show)
Unidentified Announcer: And now, ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Warmth himself,
(Soundbite of applause)
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: Don Rickles has been a nightclub comic for more than 50 years,
relying on a mostly ruthless barrage of observations and insults. He's waited
until now, at age 81, to publish his memoirs, which tell of his days with
Frank Sinatra, Johnny Carson, Bob Newhart and other famous friends.
In 2007, when Don Imus can lose his job for an ethnic and sexist slur that
some people found indefensible, it still can be startling to hear what Don
Rickles got away with in his prime, and the laughs he got from his jokes
mining stereotypes about African-Americans, Jews, Mexicans, Poles, homosexuals
and women. If you're Scandinavian, you're safe. Here he is in 1968, almost
40 years ago, reacting to certain members of his audience in Las Vegas.
(Soundbite of nigthclub show)
Mr. DON RICKLES: I'm a Jew. We're the chosen people. We don't have to do
nothing. Pick up a couple of dollars and phone God. `Hello, God.' Jews, got
to be like the Jews, just sit in the house in the living room in your
underwear. `Put on the TV, Shirley.' Burp! That's all Jews do, sit in their
underwear, belch, and watch TV.
The Irish guys are staggering around, the colored guys are going, `Glory,
glory hallelujah.' The Mexicans: `I'm going to the toilet. I don't care what
the colored guys do.' And the queers, they're going, `Let's go in the park and
have a love out.' These are the jokes, lady. If you're waiting for Billy
Graham to come in here, forget about it. At the finish, I give out dirty
pamphlets. You got to be a Jew, lady. You're the only one with a stole on,
and it's a 105 in here, for crying out loud.
(Soundbite of applause)
Mr. RICKLES: You're either a Jew or an old beaver in heat.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. RICKLES: Is she laughing? Take a look. Ah, it doesn't matter.
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: Don Rickles' new book, co-written by David Ritz, is called
Don Rickles, welcome to FRESH AIR.
Mr. RICKLES: Thank you, Dave. Nice to be here.
BIANCULLI: You start the book with a great anecdote about the time that you
got up the nerve to ask Frank Sinatra to come to your table and say hello to
impress a date.
Mr. RICKLES: What it was, was that the punchline is, I was with this--I was
in my single days. I've been married 42 years. I don't want to blow it now.
I was with this young lady I thought would be an easy mark for me, and we had
this evening and we went to the Sands Lounge, and she was all dressed up and,
you know, kind of a good kid, but not my cup of tea for life, let's put it
Mr. RICKLES: And Frank Sinatra was over at the other side of the lounge. In
those days, they had several walking, strolling violins and they had the
caviar and, you know, the flaming things for hors d'oeuvre. It was really
plush. Today it's not like that at all. Anyway, so I was sitting there with
her and she said to me, `Oh, this is a lovely evening,' she said. `Is that
Frank Sinatra over there?' and he was there with some, a couple of security
officers and Lena Horne, I remember, and some other stars of that calibre...
Mr. RICKLES: ...all sitting with him and Dinah Shore. And she said, `Do you
know Frank Sinatra?' And I said, `Are you kidding, sweetheart? He's like a
brother. What are you--don't be ridiculous. Of course I know him,' because I
figured if this works, it will be a big help. She said, `Wow. You think we
could ever meet him?' I said, `It's done. Forget it. Relax. Just you wait
here, hon, OK?' And I got up and I went over and I went, `Frank,' and he had
the security guys and he always called me Bullethead and the guy said,
`Rickles is here,' and he said, `Oh, what is it?' `He wants to talk to you.'
`My pleasure.' I said, `Frank, if you could walk over--I know you're busy with
this people and just say, `Hi, Don, it would help me a lot.' He said, `It's
done.' `But don't come right away.' And so I went back to the table and she
said, `What happened?' I said, `Just chatting with him, sweetheart. Don't
And we had another tea, I had another drink, and with that Sinatra walked up,
and the violins are playing, and he walked over and he said, `Don, how are
you? It's your old buddy, Frank Sinatra.' And I went, `Not now, Frank! Can't
you see I'm with somebody.' And I stood up and did that loud, and the whole
lounge stopped. The violins stopped. The waitresses stopped. Everything
stopped. And the girl went into sugar shock, and it resulted in good things
BIANCULLI: I love that story. Also, in the book you talk about your days
working the nightclubs in Miami Beach. And you describe a nightclub where you
say they actually had rocking chairs in the audience?
Mr. RICKLES: Yeah, and surprisingly enough, when I say that, and when I
perform, I talk about it and I say they have rocking chairs, my audience would
laugh, and I said, well, the punchline is, it was a fact. It wasn't something
that they made fun of. That was the theme of the club. Everybody sat in
rocking chairs, and it sat about 100 people in rocking chairs. And it was a
great idea, and people got a kick out of it and of course they had a big round
bar plus customers sat in rocking chairs and it was called Murray Franklin's
and that's where I worked, my very beginnings in Florida.
BIANCULLI: What was it like to perform? I mean, when people were restless,
if you weren't going over well, did they rock more? Or...
Mr. RICKLES: Dave, I never went over bad, Dave. Snap out of it, Dave. I
never was lousy. The audience might be lousy but I was never lousy. But--no,
it was very--Dave, it was very intimate, just almost like sitting in your
house, and we had fun that way.
BIANCULLI: And then, of course, you had Frank Sinatra come to see you when he
pretty much ran not only Miami, but the world...
Mr. RICKLES: Yeah.
BIANCULLI: ...and in the book--well, you credit your mom with making that
connection. How did she do that?
Mr. RICKLES: Well, my mother was sort of a Jew Patton, as I said in the
book. She was a very strong-minded lady and American born in the sense that
she knew what was going on, and Dolly Sinatra lived in the Fontainebleau at
the time, that was the very major hotel. And my mother said, `I want to get
Sinatra to see you.' I said, `Ma, take it easy.' And she said, `Don't worry,
dear. I know what to do.'
And she went up to Dolly Sinatra's house--apartment in the Fontainebleau and
said, `Dolly, darling,' because she knew Dolly, as I did, and she said,
`Dolly, would you get to see'--she called me `my sonny boy.' Would you get
Frank to see sonny boy don at Murray Franklin, she said, `Etta, it's done.
It's done, darling. Don't worry.' And sure enough a few days later, in walked
Frank with an army of people, and that was the beginning of our friendship.
BIANCULLI: And I know this is a familiar story, but one more, I can't resist
hearing as you tell it. What you said to Frank Sinatra from the stage when he
was watching you perform that basically launched your career into a different
Mr. RICKLES: Well, for some reason, the press picked up on it right away and
got it all over Miami. I said, `Frank, stand up. Be yourself. Hit
somebody.' And nobody ever talked to Frank like that, and in my style, in
my--which I take pride in. When I perform, I have a funny attitude, which is
very important, and he, thank God, he laughed like crazy. And the guys with
him went, `Frank, we find that funny.' Had they not, I would've been on the
Jerry Lewis telethon.
BIANCULLI: When you were starting out as a stand-up comic, did you make a
conscious decision not to work blue, or was that just the tenor of the times?
Mr. RICKLES: It was just never in my personality to do it. I never used
any--"son of a b"'s about my biggest word on stage. I've never done that, and
I don't know. People said, well, `Rickles doesn't do that' and I really don't
to this very day. I mean, you could take a young guy to see my show and it's
not something that they're going to say, `Oh my God, I've never gone to that.'
It wasn't planned. It was just in my personality that I never thought of
doing it that way.
BIANCULLI: You're widely known as an insult comic, but you don't even like
Mr. RICKLES: No, I don't.
BIANCULLI: ...and why not? And what description...
Mr. RICKLES: Well, because people who don't know me, that have never seen me
think insulting someone is rude and mean, and I'm not mean spirited and I'm
not rude. I have an attitude that's different than, I think, than anybody
else. I know, somebody else tries what I do, I don't think that's successful
or very easy for them. I just happen to have a knack to be able to make fun
of people without telling a joke and without hurting them. I don't think,
again, though--on the other side of the coin--I don't think there's an
entertainer in the world, a comedian especially, that somebody says, `I don't
like him.' When you sell yourself, you can't win over everybody...
Mr. RICKLES: ...but you try to get the majority, and I've been blessed to be
this far along at 81 years, headline to this very day, which I'm very proud
BIANCULLI: And are there things in your act that were OK for you to say
decades ago, in terms of the ethnic jokes that you make? You haven't had to
change any of those through the times. You're OK with what you did then, what
you're doing now, and the audience is okay with the way you're doing it?
Mr. RICKLES: David, they stay politically incorrect, you know, what they say
today is very strong. But after so many years of having this reputation,
people accept me for my ethnic humor...
Mr. RICKLES: Of course, I'm an established person. They know it's not
somebody that came up Thursday and made up these things. They know my
reputation and they know how far and long I've been doing it, and I've been
BIANCULLI: A few things you don't clear up in your book that I'd like to ask
Mr. RICKLES: Sure.
BIANCULLI: Where did the insult "hockey puck" come from?
Mr. RICKLES: Well, if I could clear that up, I would have said it. I have
no--I can't really pin it down, David. To best of my recollection, it started
in these tough clubs that I was working in, where I had hecklers and so forth
and to shut them up, I would always say, `Don't be a hocky puck,' and they
laughed at that, and it worked. And even in this day in New York--I'm a New
Yorker. I was born and raised in New York...
Mr. RICKLES: ...and so when I get back to New York, I walk down the street,
and I'm very approachable, which is, you know, I've walked with Robert
DeNiro--a great fellow and a great actor, but guys like that, and Clint
Eastwood, people don't run up and say, `Hi, Clint. Hi Robert.' To me, they
come right up and they go, `Hey, Rickles, a hockey puck, how are you,' you
Mr. RICKLES: But I have guys working on buildings, you know, with the
hardhats, I'll walk down the street and they'll go, `Hey, hockey puck, how are
you?' and it stuck with me.
BIANCULLI: Another thing that was a question that was raised in your book and
not answered, why did the personalized bathrobe that Frank Sinatra give to you
have the rhino head on the back?
Mr. RICKLES: Well, knowing Frank, he was that kind of guy. All the guys in
the steam room, it was like an intimate little club. And all the guys had
bathrobes. Some had--I don't remember, but Sammy Davis, I think, had glasses
on the back of his bathrobe, and what do you call it--everybody that was in
the room in those days, and Dean had something with a bottle of booze or
something, and Frank was somehow--he always looked at me and thought of me as
a rhinoceros, and he always said, `Hey, the rhino,' so he put a rhino head on
the back of my bathrobe, so that was the story. He got a kick out of it. I
wasn't going to tell him he's wrong.
BIANCULLI: OK. And then, a couple of times in your book you refer to
Spider--I'm going to need some help here, because I think it's a name for,
Mr. RICKLES: Take a wild guess, Dave.
BIANCULLI: I'm thinking a bodily organ.
Mr. RICKLES: Absolutely, absolutely, and he's a great friend of mine.
Mr. RICKLES: He takes naps and he wakes up and helped give me two children
and he's a wonderful guy and I'm very proud of him.
BIANCULLI: Well, and it just seemed so odd to me, and you've put it in print,
so I feel it's OK to ask...
Mr. RICKLES: Oh, sure.
BIANCULLI: ...where did "Spider" come from?
Mr. RICKLES: My sense of humor. I always used to, you know, I didn't want
to say other words, and I thought Spider was kind of cute, and the audience
responded to it. I suddenly started talking, at the beginning of my show, I
said, `Oh, Spider's so tired tonight. I don't know what's a matter with him.'
And it tells the whole story right then and there, and the audience laughs,
and again I say, what the audience laughs at, I do. I keep hitting, so to
BIANCULLI: Comedian Don Rickles. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Here are some things I did learn from your book that I didn't
know. As a young man, you took acting classes with Grace Kelly and Jason
Mr. RICKLES: And Tom Poston, who we just lost, rest his soul. Conrad Bain.
And, oh my goodness, and Anne Bancroft. It was--those were wonderful times.
And I was accepted at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and graduated from
there, which a lot of people didn't know. And I was kind of proud of that.
How I graduated and how I became part of that was unbelievable, because I did
the audition and they accepted me, and my background was not such that they
would, because all the people I knew in those days were dedicated--and proved
it to me--dedicated actors and actresses, and I was a so-called comedian that
was making fun of life and doing bad impressions, and the school took me. And
I was so happy about that because it gave me a good solid background to know a
little more about this business at the time.
BIANCULLI: The book, in many places, is a love letter to your mother.
Mr. RICKLES: Yes, it is.
BIANCULLI: And I'm wondering how her support of you, not only when you were
young and starting out but what appears to be all through your life, translate
to the way you've treated your own children and grandchildren?
Mr. RICKLES: You know, that was very sweet what you said. I got a little
emotional when you said that. It was a love letter to my mother, now that I
think about it. And she was a great lady, a very domineering lady and a very
possessive lady, she had those sides, but she had a great charm. She was very
educated, and she was very supportive. Because as all actors are,
David--trust me when I say that. I can say it for all of us...
Mr. RICKLES: ...every actor when he was a kid was shy--I really believe
that--as I was, and my mother was my strength, although at times she made me a
little nutsy by saying, you know, `Do this, do that.' In other words, we would
go into a restaurant when I had gained a little fame and they would know me,
and I'd walk in and she'd say, `Darling, I know the maitre d'. Don't--just
stand over there. Charles, how are you? A table for my son and my friends.'
And she would be a take-over person.
Mr. RICKLES: And I used to go, `Oh my God, why'd she do that?' But I found
out, as years and years went on, that her strength was a great boost for me as
a person and as a performer. And she lived through me. She really did. She
was a frustrated performer herself but never admitted to that, but she lived
BIANCULLI: You were in "Casino," opposite Robert DeNiro.
Mr. RICKLES: Yeah.
BIANCULLI: And how did that offer from Martin Scorsese come to you?
Mr. RICKLES: Marty Scorsese, who's the best, and he somehow said, `Rickles
would be perfect for "Casino,"' and a lot of people didn't know it, but the
part of Billy Sherbert was not in the original script. Marty wrote that in,
and the joke was that Rickles played a mute, because I didn't have much
dialogue. But they said I was pretty damned good in it and I was kind of
happy to hear that, and Marty said, `I want that presence,' and I said,
`Marty, I don't have a lot of dialogue.' He said, `But your presence, Don,
your presence is going to be great.' And he was very demonstrative about it.
And sure enough, I got to be in "Casino" just because Scorsese reached out for
me and, of course, I had to meet Robert DeNiro. You went through a cycle.
You had to first go and sit with Marty and talk, then you had to go and see
DeNiro, and I went over to his place at the Bel Air Hotel and I said, `Bob I'm
here--supposed to talk to you.' And he said, (Imitates DeNiro) `Well, oh, OK,
OK. It was good to see you.' And he mumbled, and that was it and that was the
beginning of our friendship.
BIANCULLI: Yeah, you tell a story in the book--I don't remember whether it
was at rehearsal or during the first day of filming, where you actually make
fun of him...
Mr. RICKLES: I did.
BIANCULLI: ...which again, is sort of like Frank Sinatra all over again.
Mr. RICKLES: I did. I did. They told me, David, they said, `Don't make fun
of DeNiro, Donny. Don't kid around. He's a very serious actor and he likes
to work very hard.' And I said, `Well, I do, too,' but you know, `Just cool it
with the kidding around.' So I said, `OK.' But I don't listen. You know, the
first day we were doing a scene and he was--of course, we talked and so forth,
but he walked and he said--we had what they call a handheld camera walking
down the casino, and he went, `You know, hm mm, it's so good mm mm.' ' And I
said, `I can't, Marty. I can't work with a mumbler. I walk out. I don't
need this. I got a lot of money. And I'm walking. I don't need it. Stop
making him mumble, otherwise I walk.' And he started to laugh, and that broke
the ice, and I've kidded him ever since.
BIANCULLI: You dance around it, or allude to it gently through most of your
book, but at one point you actually acknowledge that mob connections simply
were part of a successful Vegas nightclub career back then. Would you
consider that a fair assessment?
Mr. RICKLES: Absolutely. I mean, when you say, you know, "mob," they were
great guys, and I didn't get involved into delving into what time they went to
bed or what gun they had. It was nothing like that, but they were the guys
that ran Vegas and they were the guys that ran nightclubs and I was very--they
were very kind to my mother and to me, at the time. I was single then, and I
knew a lot of them by first names, but I never delved into their personal life
because I wanted to live. That's a joke. But...
BIANCULLI: Yeah. A little late on the laugh, but I got it. Yeah.
Mr. RICKLES: But they were also great to me and you needed them. Without
them--the Copa Cabana in New York. I don't think I ever would have got to the
Copa unless certain people made some calls and said, `You've got to put
Rickles into the Copa Cabana.' That was a big shot for me, to be in the Copa
Cabana. My god, to headline there was highlight of my career, really. One of
BIANCULLI: Finally, I want to ask you about one other part of your book,
where you're actually very tender, and that's talking about your friendship
with Bob Newhart. And you talk about traveling with Bob Newhart. We've
interviewed--we on FRESH AIR have interviewed Bob Newhart, where he's given
his side of your traveling stories. And here in the book you talk about it as
being like a tour of the loudmouth and the librarian.
Mr. RICKLES: Yeah.
BIANCULLI: What's the ongoing appeal of traveling with Bob?
Mr. RICKLES: Well, the basic thing is--first of all, as I say in my
performance, the wives are key. He always laughs...(unintelligible)...key.
Our wives are like sisters. They're very dear and close to each other, and
had not Ginny and my wife, Barbara, been friends, I don't know if Bob and I
ever would have gotten together. But that was the first secret. The two
wives adored each other and they said, `Let's work it out that Don and Bob
meet in Vegas,' and as I say in the book, we met and so forth and so on. But
the basic thing is, we both have, believe it or not, the same sense of humor
when we're alone socially. On stage it's apples and oranges.
Mr. RICKLES: He does brain humor and I do what I do and he's beautifully
BIANCULLI: You do Spider humor, is that what you do?
Mr. RICKLES: You're really hung up on that, aren't you, Dave? You like
that. Are you married?
BIANCULLI: No, not anymore. Keep moving. Nothing to see here.
Mr. RICKLES: OK, well, I was going to tell you, you have Spider talk to her.
Mr. RICKLES: Anyway, David, we both have, to this day, the same basic
values. I spend Christmas with him, he spends holidays. In fact, it was my
birthday the other night, and just he and his wife, besides my immediate
family joined us. So we've always hit it off as family and as friends, and
it's a great unwritten quality that we both have for each other.
BIANCULLI: How long have you know each other now?
Mr. RICKLES: Oh my God. I'm married 42 years. I don't know, about 35
BIANCULLI: Well, that's amazing. What is it about you that allows you to
claim as close friends, not only Bob Newhart, you know, who's quiet and shy,
at least on stage, but Johnny Carson and Frank Sinatra, who could be so aloof
and hard to approach?
Mr. RICKLES: Well, what can I tell you, Dave? It's my personality, and
Frank, he always had a thing about me that was kind of warm and sweet, and
Johnny got a kick out of me, and Johnny was a loner, as David Letterman is,
and I became good friends with David Letterman--anyway, so I had good times
with--my personality just hit it off with them. What can I say?
BIANCULLI: You've said a lot, and it's in your book. So Don Rickles, thank
you very, very much for being on FRESH AIR today.
Mr. RICKLES: Thank you, David. I hope you'll read the book again.
BIANCULLI: Comedian Don Rickles. The 8l-year-old entertainer's book of
memoirs is called "Rickles' Book."
I'm David Bianculli and this is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Hugh Cordey, producer of three segments of "Planet
Earth," on the series and the place of natural history filmmakers
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli.
When "Planet Earth" was shown by the Discovery Channel in March and April, it
was the most popular show on cable, and with good reason. "Planet Earth" was
the most outstanding TV program of the season, and now that it's out on DVD,
it's even better, for reasons I'll get to in a minute.
My next guest is one of the producers of "Planet Earth," Hugh Cordey, who is
directly responsible for three of the installments. With the BBC wildlife
unit, he also was a producer on "Life of Mammals," one of many superb nature
programs hosted by Sir David Attenborough. In England, Attenborough was the
narrator of "Planet Earth" as well. But for American audiences, the Discovery
Channel replaced him with actress Sigourney Weaver. It's an ill-advised
substitution. In terms of TV nature documentaries, David Attenborough is the
best guy on the planet on the planet and his work is much more emotive.
But there's good news. The DVD box set of "Planet Earth," which is fabulous,
includes the original Attenborough narration. It also features him as
narrator of the making of the film DVD extras, like this one, about one of
Hugh Cordey's "Planet Earth" programs on caves. Most of the powerful moments
on "Planet Earth" come from the stunning images, but in this clip, as the crew
descends into a cave populated by thousands of cockroaches, the sound is
(Soundbite of "Planet Earth")
Mr. DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: Of all the habitats the "Planet Earth" teams had to
deal with, undoubtedly the one that was to provide the most unpleasant working
conditions was the underground world of caves.
Unidentified Man #1: Look at that. Thousands of cockroaches.
Unidentified Man #2: There's a few juveniles, we're in moulting phase here,
and just everywhere you look is cockroaches. Look at that. Beautiful sight.
(Soundbite of cockroaches)
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: Oh, that's just creepy. Now, tell me, first of all, how did the
cameras handle that, and how did you handle that?
Mr. HUGH CORDEY: The cameras handled it remarkably well, which was actually
quite a surprise, given the high humidity and the amount of filth that was in
this cave. I mean, there was guano everywhere, so the dirt was getting into
everything. But it handled it well. How we handled it was, I would say,
slightly different, and varied from one member of the crew to another. I
found it absolutely fascinating, I have to say, but there were two types of
cockroaches you got in this cave. One was a sort of big cockroaches, "flying
bastards," as we liked to call them, that you might find in...
BIANCULLI: Is that a technical...
Mr. CORDEY: Yeah, that's what we call...
Mr. CORDEY: Yes, it's a very technical term that we use in the natural
history world. And they're the sort of cockroaches you might find in a rather
downbeat pizza restaurant or kabob shop, and there were literally thousands of
But there was another type of cockroach, a very--almost a pretty cockroach, if
that's sort of a contradiction in terms. Sort of a golden cockroach. who's
much smaller that lived on the guano mound itself. And there were literally
hundreds of thousands of these things. And they looked fairly benign, but
actually what happened was when you did wade amongst them in the guano, they
could get into your clothing, and they did give you a little bit of a bite if
they got trapped between your clothes and your skin, so what we did was we
wore these paper suits like you might wear when you're in a sort of chemical
lab situation. They didn't last very long, these suits. They're made of
paper, so most members of the crew would sort of tape up the crotch in
particular with gaffer tape...
Mr. CORDEY: ...because that was what went first, and obviously that's really
not a place you'd want to have cockroaches crawling into...
BIANCULLI: Oh, and it's probably their favorite place to go and...
Mr. CORDEY: No, it's nice and warm and cozy, yeah. And so you know, there
were moments where I think most of us felt, well, we probably couldn't stand
it for much longer but, you know, the crew were there for probably for about
two or three weeks on one shoot and maybe three weeks on another shoot, so
it's something you just have to get used to. Grin and bear it, if you like.
But just to sort of go back a bit, when we started the series, the producers
had an opportunity to pitch for certain programs...
Mr. CORDEY: And I was convinced that everybody would want to do caves
because there was so much new there. We knew nothing about them. I knew
nothing about them. I thought, `Wow, here's an opportunity to show something
new without even trying,' and so behind the scenes, I was almost quite
forceful with Alastair, telling him that I really, really was keen to do caves
if I was going to work on this series. And he said, `OK, fine, you know,
you've made your preference, but, you know, we'll talk about it round the
table with all the other producers.' And then we had to write down, in order
from one to 11, what programs we actually wanted to do, and so as I've just
mentioned, I put caves first...
Mr. CORDEY: And it turned out that I was the only person who put caves
first, and everybody had them 11th out of 11.
BIANCULLI: You've described what we can't see on the radio about being down
in those caves. Can you describe what we couldn't smell on the television?
Mr. CORDEY: Well, with the cave that we've just talked about, the one with
the cockroaches and guano, there was a very, very strong smell of ammonia, and
when we were filming on the guano mound--this huge, almost, like 100-meter
mound of guano--the smell of ammonia at the bottom was quite strong, but not
that bad because there was enough air movement. But as you climbed this guano
mound and got closer to the roof, there was a point where it was literally
like hitting a wall. You could not go a meter further. Your eyes started to
sting. The smell of this ammonia got into your lungs and burned your lungs.
It was an incredible experience. It really was like a wall. But other than
that, caves don't smell too bad, you might be interested to know.
BIANCULLI: Hugh, two of the other programs that you were specifically
responsible for, besides caves, were desert and jungles, and I've got specific
questions about both of those. With the desert, it's one thing to plan in
advance and say, `Hey, let's go film some wild camels,' and it's another one
to actually get it done. Can you talk about the difference between those two
Mr. CORDEY: Quite. Although with the camels, there was a certain amount of
similarity between those two ideas, because, when I heard about the camels in
Mongolia in the Gobi Desert, I definitely wanted to film them. There was
something to me, right from the word go, that were very, very unique and
fitted in very well to the story. But I knew from the start that they were
incredibly difficult because practically the first person I talked to about it
had spent some time trying to study these animals, and he made it very clear
right from the word go that here was an animal that was quite capable of
spotting you from four kilometers and running in the opposite direction for
70. So I knew it was going to be difficult.
But, you know, that was the great thing about "Planet Earth," is that we were
given the opportunity to fail. And I know that might sound odd, but that was
why we, in the end, probably filmed the things that we did, because we had the
time and we had the resources to try things that people hadn't tried before.
BIANCULLI: Does it get to be a point of honor among the various crews, you
know, saying, `It took me 60 hours to get that shot.' `Well, 60 hours, that's
nothing,' that sort of thing?
Mr. CORDEY: Yes, definitely. It was like that Monty Python sketch where
they're talking about what it was like when they were younger. Do you know
BIANCULLI: Yes, I do.
Mr. CORDEY: Yeah. So, yeah, I think I--well, one of my shoots probably
trumped most people's in that we put in 600 hours in hides, or at least one
particular cameraman did. Six hundreds hours in hides for probably about...
BIANCULLI: Explain what a hide is.
Mr. CORDEY: A hide is what you'd call a blind, so it could be made of
manmade materials, like a little tent or it could be made of forest
vegetation. So it's a place where you can conceal yourself.
BIANCULLI: OK, go ahead.
Mr. CORDEY: At least--obviously, you'd want to keep them small, so very
often a cameraman is sitting in something that's probably about a meter
square. So this cameraman sat in various hides--or blinds--in New Guinea,
trying to film birds of paradise courting. Now, we knew it was going to be
tricky. I mean, that wasn't something we went into thinking, `Wow, this is
going to be a piece of cake.' But we did think it was going to be a hell of a
lot easier than it was, as it turned out. But in the 600 hours that the
cameraman put in, we only filmed about 25 minutes of actual behavior. For
huge portions of the shoot, nothing happened at all, and it was very
frustrating that this was an animal which you can see fairly easily because
they have these--the male birds of paradise have these dancing grounds, or
leks, so you pretty much know where you need to be. But they're not going to
do anything until the female shows up. I mean, it was extraordinary.
And in fact, when the cameraman came out--and I was there in the first
month--and then we went back the following year for another month to try to
sort of try to do better than we'd done before, but also to shoot an
additional species,. And when he came out on the last day of that second
month, he said that tears just welled up in his eyes and he nearly broke down
in tears in front of his local guide, because he just couldn't believe that
he'd put in all those hours and hadn't got what he'd hoped. But actually what
he had got was a brand new species of bird of paradise filmed for its first
time in its courtship. That was the blue bird of paradise.
Mr. CORDEY: And he filmed the superb bird of paradise, which probably
everyone remembers because it is the most extraordinary display. A lot of
people refer to it as the smiley-faced bird because it looks like it's got a
big iridescent smiley face on the front of it. It sort of folds its wings
into a disc and jumps up and down. And even though he only filmed 25 minutes'
worth of footage, they were extremely memorable shots.
BIANCULLI: Oh, it's one of the most memorable shots in the entire 11 hours,
and there are plenty of memorable shots in those hours.
In these behind-the-scenes programs that are part of the DVD, there is a lot
of explanation of how the images were captured, but not a lot about how the
sound was. How meticulously is that done?
Mr. CORDEY: It's very meticulous. But the sound is one of those things with
naturalistic films that sometimes confuses and disappoints people.
Disappointing in the sense that people, I think, always expect it to be
recorded at the same time. So when they hear that it's not, they sort of
think, `Oh, OK,' but actually when you explain it, people go, `OK, I
understand.' I mean, as you can imagine, when you're actually filming
something, it's very difficult to have a soundman sitting next to you trying
to record the sound.
Mr. CORDEY: You'd hear the sound of the cameraman, the camera going around
and so on. So in most cases, the sound is recorded separately, but it's all
totally authentic sound, but just not recorded at the same time.
BIANCULLI: Hugh Cordey, one of the producers of the nature documentary series
"Planet Earth." More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to my interview with Hugh Cordey. He's one of the
producers of the documentary series "Planet Earth," show recently on the
I don't believe that this was your episode, the thing that I'm just about to
ask you about, but it's the one where that poor little baby elephant gets lost
and goes the wrong way following the tracks of her mother, and the last image
that you see of this sequence is this shot from helicopter of just miles and
miles and miles of nothing with this poor elephant, you know, heading probably
towards its death. Do you know the sequence that I'm talking about?
Mr. CORDEY: Yes, very well. It's a very tragic shot.
BIANCULLI: And I wondered--cynical TV critic that I am--like, couldn't
somebody have just landed the helicopter and just turned the elephant around
when you were through getting that great shot, or is there some Hippocratic
Oath for environmental filmmakers that you never help?
Mr. CORDEY: Well, you know, a lot of people have asked us that, and we've
had quite a lot of letters and e-mails along the same lines but...
BIANCULLI: I'm glad I'm not alone.
Mr. CORDEY: No, definitely, you're not alone, because it doesn't make any
sense to people. They think that, `You were there, you saw it, couldn't you
do anything about it.' But you're absolutely right in what you said afterward.
Yes, there is definitely an unspoken law amongst natural history filmmakers
that you don't involve yourself in the struggles of nature. You know, we are
there to document it, not to try to interfere with it. I mean, there were
some times where it wouldn't make sense not to interfere. There's a nice
moment in the making of the Antarctic section where the partner of the
cameraman pulls an Emperor penguin chick out of a hole that it had fallen
into. Well, you know, it didn't matter to the species that she just put her
hands in and picked the chick out and gave it back to its mother.
Mr. CORDEY: It would have been rather hard to have done otherwise. But with
that elephant, who's to say that it would have worked, landing a helicopter
next to a wild animal like that? You know, it may have been--you know, it may
have been dangerous to the elephant, to the people inside the helicopter...
BIANCULLI: Right. I hadn't give it that much that as terms of the rescue
plan, you know. I...
Mr. CORDEY: But you know, that's what we've had to answer because people
say, `Why didn't you do it?' Well, you know, an elephant's a very big animal
and, you know, turning it around when it may feel like it absolutely wants to
go that way, may have just stressed it out even more.
BIANCULLI: This may not apply so much to the hours on which you worked, the
programs on, you know, caves, desert, and jungles, but it seems to me that
over the course of the 11 hours of "Planet Earth," a decision was made very
early at the very beginning, to sort of downplay the grisly--and I'm saying,
G-R-I-S-L-Y, not a bear. Is that true?
Mr. CORDEY: No, it's not true. I think that we, in the UK, may not place as
much emphasis on those big predation stories that the US might have done in
the past, although I think they're slightly changing. But we certainly didn't
hold back if it was relevant to the story, and I think in every program there
were moments which were poignant and perhaps controversial in their content,
and I could give you a few examples--the lions taking down elephants...
Mr. CORDEY: We had a lot of letters about that. The chimpanzee infanticide.
The fur seals taking the king penguins. I mean, there were certainly moments
that some people would have found tough to take.
BIANCULLI: Well, I guess what I'm asking--because, for example, that night
footage of the elephants being taken down. Yes, it's very dramatic and it's
filmed beautifully, but I'm just thinking that once there is an attack, once
there is a death, that there's not a lot of rending of the flesh or a lot of
Mr. CORDEY: Yeah.
BIANCULLI: Although certainly, I mean, I'll never forget the great white
shark coming out of the ocean parallel with a--was it a seal in its mouth, or
Mr. CORDEY: That's right. Yeah.
BIANCULLI: Sea lion.
Mr. CORDEY: Fur seal. Yeah, sea lion.
BIANCULLI: You know, I mean so--I'm not saying that it's not there, but I'm
just wondering if it wasn't dwelled upon in terms of...
Mr. CORDEY: OK.
BIANCULLI: ...the after effects, and I don't know if that was a decision or
Mr. CORDEY: Well, I think that we were fairly subtle when it came to death
and destruction. We were quite subtle in the editing. Because, at the end of
the day, once you've made a point like, `Yes, that wolf that chased the
caribou calf gets it,' you don't necessarily need to see its throat being
Mr. CORDEY: I mean, I watched the raw footage of the fur seals taking the
king penguins, and I've been in this business, you know, 15, 20 years, and I
find that quite tough to take, because what the seal did, after a bit of a
standoff, was grab the penguin around its neck and shake it, and in many cases
it actually flayed the animal alive. And to see a penguin trying to get back
in the sea without any skin over its head is not the sort of thing you'd want
to show an audience.
I've got another example. In the footage of the lions taking the elephant,
there's a scene where the lion has the elephant's trunk in its mouth, trying
to suffocate it...
Mr. CORDEY: ...and there's another shot of the elephant's eye, very much
alive and awake while there's 20 lions eating it alive, because obviously
lions can't kill an elephant in the normal way. They can't bite its throat.
It's too big. And that eye shot was in one of the earlier cuts of the
Mr. CORDEY: ...and I remember thinking, personally, I really wouldn't put
that shot in, and there were other people that felt the same way and Alastair
asked for it to be removed in the end. Because at the end of the day, natural
history does have a family audience, and I don't think the aim is to try to
shock people, but it's not to sanitize, either. We definitely didn't take the
standpoint of, `OK, let's try to sanitize it as much as possible so anybody
can watch it.' Where there were tough sequences, we definitely didn't shy away
from it, but to be gratuitous with the sort of blood and guts, I think,
would've been wrong for the genre.
BIANCULLI: What's the one shot in the entire program, whether you
photographed it or not, of which you're proudest?
Mr. CORDEY: It was something that I'd tried on a previous series and failed,
so I was incredibly proud that we'd got it, and it was the shot of the fungus,
which was rather perfectly named Cordyceps fungus--my name's Cordey, so I
always thought it was rather appropriate to be likened to a parasitic fungus.
But this fungus gets inside invertebrates, in this case it was an ant, and
then the fruity body of the fungus bursts out of the head of the ant, and it's
just--we filmed it in time lapse--and it was just the most extraordinary shot
and, actually, if there's one thing that I thought was rather appropriate
about having Sigourney Weaver do the narration, is that it looks like
something from "Alien." So, you know, who better than Sigourney Weaver to
BIANCULLI: That's funny.
Mr. CORDEY: But we didn't know--nobody had ever filmed this before. It was
the first time ever somebody had filmed this group of parasitic fungus in time
lapse of this fruity body emerging from an invertebrate. We were in Ecuador
and the consultant found--I mean, he literally had to find a distressed ant...
Mr. CORDEY: Can you believe it, in a rainforest, finding an ant that's
looking a bit iffy? Found the ant, and then we set up a time-lapse camera and
we had no idea how long it would take. We thought it was going to take three
or four days. The fungus' fruity bodies come up fairly quickly in funguses,
generally. It actually took three and a half weeks, and it was the last
camera to be packed up...
BIANCULLI: Oh my.
Mr. CORDEY: ...as we were leaving, and you know--it's such a weird and
otherwordly shot and it was something that I'd wanted to do for so long, that
I was very proud that we actually got that. And in actual fact, a week after
it went out a scientist in Scandinavia who had been working with this fungus
species in other parts of the world actually e-mailed me and said, you know,
he'd seen it on YouTube, so somebody had taken it and put it on YouTube, which
I thought was rather nice.
BIANCULLI: All right. Well, listen, Hugh, thank you very much again. I
really do think it was a magnificent piece of work, and I can't wait for your
Mr. CORDEY: Well, thank you very much. I'm really pleased to hear you
BIANCULLI: Hugh Cordey, one of the producers of the series "Planet Earth."
Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker on the new live CD from Robbie Fulks. This
is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Ken Tucker reviews the a live double CD from Robbie Fulks
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Alt-country performer Robbie Fulks has a new live double CD. Rock critic Ken
Tucker has this review.
(Soundbite of song)
Mr. ROBBIE FULKS: (Singing) Springfield, Salt Lake
Farmer City, Fairbanks
West to east Portland
All across the land
We're never home
What is it that we're on?
We're on the road
We're on the road
We're on the road
We're on the road
When we're not onstage
We're in a chrome cage
We're on the road
with Robbie Fulks
We're on the road
We're on the road
(End of soundbite)
Mr. KEN TUCKER: I shy away from reviewing live albums because they usually
just contain the artists' greatest hits, and the concert experience they're
meant to convey isn't easily reproduced in a radio review such as this. But
Robbie Fulks' "Revenge!" is a more manageable effort. It's easy to hear why
people have a good time at his shows.
(Soundbite of "You Shouldn't Have")
Mr. FULKS: (Singing) Well, you did what you did
And you know that you did it
And there ain't no use to deny it
I got you dead to rights, baby,
Now you've gone and made me mad
You been catting on the sly now,
You bat your pretty eyes
With a tale no monkey'd ever buy it
Is that a line you're handin' me, girl?
Well, you shouldn't have
No, you shouldn't have
You shouldn't have...
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: As you can hear, Robbie Fulks specializes in throwback country,
big honky tonk numbers that do without the glossy sheen of most contemporary
country music. Born in York, Pennsylvania, but a long-time resident of
Chicago, Fulks isn't your typical country music artist. He has an obvious
love for the country music of the '50s and '60s, but chafes under what he sees
as the constraints of the Nashville music industry. One of his most famous
songs about that city dismisses Nashville with a sharp obscenity in its title.
Of course, some people hear Fulks' complaints as sour grapes, that if he wrote
better or more conventional songs he'd be a star. But Fulks is drawn to
isolation, as he suggests on this song called "I Like Being Left Alone."
(Soundbite of "I Like Being Left Alone")
Mr. FULKS: (Singing) I like being left alone
I like chocolate pie, clear blue sky, glass of Cote-du-Rone
I like summer, I like fall,
I like music, but most of all
I like being left alone
I'm talking about sales reps
I'm talking about the government
I'm talking about the children
Well, I'm talking about you, you, you
My time's like a sweet plum
Everybody wants some
But I'd rather be lonesome
I'd rather be blue
I like being alone...
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: That tune's from the acoustic disc on the new double album
"Revenge!" recorded in Chicago. A lot of it is slow going. For a rebel,
Fulks has a mawkish side. But it also contains this fine cover from an
unexpected source. Robbie Fulks' version of Cher's 1998 hit single "Believe."
(Soundbite of "Believe")
Mr. FULKS: (Singing) No matter how hard I try
You keep pushing me aside
And I can't break through
There's no talking to you
It's so sa-a-ad that you're leaving
It takes ti-i-ime to believe it
But after all is said and done
You're going to be the lonely one
Do you believe in life after love?
I can feel something inside me say
I really don't think you're strong enough, no!
Do you believe in life after love?
I can feel something inside me say
I really don't think you're strong enough
(End of soundbite)
Mr. TUCKER: I'm not surprised Robbie Fulks isn't a country radio favorite.
He doesn't have much of a voice, and his ill-disguised contempt for those who
don't appreciate the genius of Robbie Fulks is palpable. One of the best
things Fulks did recently was to write a song called "Fountains of Wayne
Hotline," a novelty tune with some sting that traveled all across the
Internet, most legally by iTunes. It's about how the guys in the power pop
band Fountains of Wayne write in such a facile way, they should start a
service for other songwriters who are stuck for the next chord change. It was
hysterical, but also tinged with bitterness. I guess Fulks wants both
commercial success and the critical accolades that cult bands get from
critics. Well, I'll help him out a little. Within this two disc set
"Revenge!" there are the makings of one very good album.
BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is editor at large for Entertainment Weekly.
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.