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Attenborough's in Pole position

SEX, violence and suspense-stuffed chases. It can mean only one thing: David Attenborough is back. Frozen Planet (BBC1)

The magnificent Frozen Planet finds him first at the North Pole, the coldest, most inhospitable place on Earth, to "witness its wonders, perhaps for the last time".

His last time or our last time? Both, I suspect, with climate change eating our planet alive.

Amazingly, though Attenborough is 85 now, with his very first television documentary more than half-a-century behind him, this is the first time he's been there -- and boy, is it cold, -70 Celsius at its worst.

"The sun never shines high enough in the sky to warm my back," he says, framed in a puffy red parka against a low-slung globe of pale yellow.

What sun there is reflects off the great white plains, and for half the year there's no sun at all.

Pity the poor polar bear, then, padding his way across the ice in search of companionship and, as promised, sex. He has to hurry, because soon it will be summer and the ice will melt.

The dating game up here is no picnic. Females are few and far between, but our polar bear scents one, 10 miles ahead, and off he goes in hot pursuit through the cold.

As he catches up, he literally follows in her footprints, which have compacted the ice, to conserve energy.

Not for the sex, which when it eventually comes is surprisingly gentle -- "the only tender moment in his otherwise violent life," says Attenborough -- but for the violence.

Our bear has barely said, "Hello, do you come here often?" to the female when a rival turns up. He sees him off easily -- polar bear handbags at dawn -- but the next one proves tougher, as does the next one. At the end of it, he's bitten and bloody but has survived to claim his prize. But the female bear decides she's not in the mood at the moment, so he has to jog along beside her until she is. "Female polar bears are high maintenance," says Attenborough, drolly.

Frozen Planet, filmed, says Attenborough, in "a place that seems borrowed from fairytales", is possibly -- no, definitely -- the most beautiful TV I've ever seen.

In Greenland, a blue-sapphire melt lake forms and spreads, carving through the ice in rivulets before becoming a waterfall that thunders down a mile to the rock beneath.

Time-lapse photography lets us see the birth of an iceberg: rivers of ice pushing relentlessly on, reshaping the landscape through sheer force.

But amid all the beauty there's more violence -- nature red in tooth and claw.

In Antarctica, the largest and most powerful wolves in the world stalk bison, nudging and needling them until the herd panics and breaks apart.

It's a game of wits with all the tension of a good thriller.

In its desperate rush to get away, a bigger bison ploughs into a smaller one, upending it. The wolf pack closes in. Game over. It's hard to watch sometimes, this nature business.

The image that will probably stick in most viewers' memories, though, is of killer whales hunting seals. It's a brutal, horrible, yet horribly fascinating too, a game of patience peppered with sudden bursts of lethal action.

The whales swim beneath the ice floes, popping their heads above the water to eye their prey.

When they spot one they fancy, they line up in a row, like synchronised swimmers, and lash their great tales to create a wave that knocks the seal into the water.

The seal resists at first and clambers back onto the floe a few times. Eventually, there's nothing it can do but lie there, exhausted and resigned, as a whale grips its tail between its teeth and pulls it with ridiculous ease below the water, where it will drown.

If I have one tiny, tiny quibble with Frozen Planet, it's the music. Beautiful as it is, there's too much of it. It's intrusive and insistent and tries to tell us how we should feel.

I know how I feel: exhilarated that television can make such a wondrous thing.



Frozen Planet 5/5