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Q&A with ‘Africa’ Producer Mike Gunton (Part One)

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Mike Gunton is a British television producer at the BBC’s Natural History Unit — the largest team dedicated to wildlife film-making in the world. Gunton first joined the unit back in 1987 to work alongside fellow naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, on Trials of Life. In the decades since, he’s served as executive producer on a number of critically acclaimed series including Life, Hidden Kingdoms, Tiny Giants 3D, Shark, and Africa, which recently aired on BBC America. In November of 2009, Gunton was named the first-ever Creative Director of the Natural History Unit.

BBC America: What’s special about your landmark natural history series Africa?

Mike Gunton: The thing that makes it stand out is that for the first time, we took a “whole Africa” approach. A lot of people have filmed in Africa, but usually in a very small number of places. I thought that if you told the story of the different regions, you’d get much more diversity and also you’d get this sense of how it all comes together to create the top wildlife continent on the planet. It always has been, always will be.

BBCA: Any specific instance where the series shows a fresh side to a species?

Gunton: One of my favorite stories we told was about rhinos. Everybody thinks of a rhino as a solitary, rather grumpy animal. But we discovered this location in southwestern Africa where rhinos actually come together under the cover of darkness, basically to party under the stars. They come together and do all this cute nuzzling, and they also squeak! They make this amazing sound, which we’d never heard because we’d never realized that they had this kind of interaction. There’s all this courtship and it’s really like a nightclub. That was a real surprise.

BBCA: What did this nightclub-style rhino courtship entail?

Gunton: There’s a great story where a female is keen to mate, and while she’s prancing around this male comes up and starts to canoodle with her. Then, over the horizon comes another really massive male, who’s much more of a catch. The female gives this first rhino the elbow, and starts to get fresh with this really big male instead. But then, the smaller male somehow manages to get a pair of kudu horns hooked over his nose, and he wanders up between the big male and the female. Suddenly, she gets interested again, and the bigger rhino gets the elbow! Of course when the small rhino tries to mate with her, he’s hopeless. In the end, the only way she can get rid of him is by sitting down and pretending to be asleep. So there’s a lot of relatable stuff there.

BBCA: Are some of these animals misunderstood?

Gunton: You know, people think of giraffes as being comical animals. If you watch the Madagascar cartoon, they’re shown as rather sweet and funny creatures. But in reality, when the males are fighting over females, they are vicious. These fights are extraordinary, and they’re what I’d imagine dinosaurs fighting to be like. On their heads they have these short little horns, and what they do is get their necks and wind them up like a lasso, and slam into each other. During these fights, the males are just covered with puncture wounds from the horns.

BBCA: What prompted the giraffe fight in Africa’s ‘Kalahari’ episode?

Gunton: We managed to find a situation where this particular male giraffe had been a territory holder for a long time, but a younger male really fancied his chances of taking it. This fight went on and on, and in the end the youngster knocked the older guy down and started to come in with a killer blow. While he was doing that, though, he took his eye off the ball, and the old male swung his neck and hit the youngster right in the solar plexus. There’s this amazing shot of the young guy just collapsing in slow motion. It absolutely knocked him out. He did get up in the end, but he was very, very sorry for himself. It was a good lesson—the old boys still know a thing or two!

BBCA: What do you hope viewers take away from this program?

Gunton: I think part of what we’ve done in the series is show the other sides to some of the creatures, like the rhinos and the giraffes. Humor is also important. Although Africa is a magnificent place with magnificent animals, we also wanted to show how there’s also a lot of humor there, and a lot of strange contradictions.

The only thing I suppose I’d like people to take away from this is that Africa is a continent with an amazing variety of landscapes, animals, and habitats. To really understand Africa, you need to take a journey from the Atlas Mountains across the Sahara and all the way down to the Cape, and from the Great Rift Valley all the way to the forests in the west. Then you understand that Africa is, absolutely, the number one wildlife continent on the planet.

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