Big Cats,a nature series that keeps pace with Blue Planet II: review

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Big Cats

The biggest challenge facing any wildlife documentary is the genre’s constant upping of the wonder bar. Every time a series like Blue Planet II comes along, wowing all who watch it, the bar gets raised another notch. So it’s fascinating to see natural history series like Big Cats (BBC Two) respond to the demand for more staggering sequences, exquisite photography and relatable storylines.

Two years in the making, with 30 filming expeditions across four continents, Big Cats had a well-defined subject area that enabled it to cast its net far and wide. It opened with fabulous footage of a cheetah tearing across the Namibian desert – close-ups capturing every ripple of muscle and sinew, every paw placement – before fading into a kaleidoscope of feline faces that emphasised the similarities and differences across species.

Similarity and difference remained the governing principle. African lions were outed as the only community-minded cats. A storyline about an injured lioness and her cubs surviving with the help of the pride’s members proved the advantages of pack life. From large lions it flipped to the tiny, hyper-cute, solitariness of Sri Lanka’s elusive rusty-spotted cat, which is small enough to fit in the palm of a human hand, before skipping on to huge Siberian tigers, and caiman-killing jaguars in the wetlands of the Pantanal.

Among the most impressive sequences were those of a lone snow-leopard crying out as it sought a mate in the Himalayas. The most unusual were those of pumas preying on penguins on the shores of Patagonia – spoiled only by the voice-over, which said: “This may seem ruthless, callous even… but that’s what it takes to survive.”

Still, the superb footage of Canadian lynx that followed made up for that, before going full circle to the cheetah, and an analysis – with the help of a high-speed camera buggy – of how these animals achieve the unique mix of speed and agility that enables them to be as adept at hunting in woodland as out in the open.

A series, then, that keeps pace with the competition, although it could have done without the “Big Cats tales” section, relating how a cameraman and director burst into tears at their first sighting of a snow leopard. Call me callous, but did we really need to know that?