I’d be willing to bet that I was the only person in the country who watched the BBC’s risible ‘Planet of the Apemen’ drama-documentary from beginning to end the other night. Everyone else will have screamed abuse at the television and kicked the screen to bits after the first five minutes or so – the only sensible response to an appalling and insultingly low-brow approach to one of the most fascinating ideas in human history, a concept of vast existential dimension; that we (homo sapiens) once shared the planet with several different human species.
Ignore the fact that few subjects can safely exist on television these days as documentary alone. Ignore the fact that few channels seems willing to part with the resources to treat historical subjects dramatically. The compromise that is the docudrama may be the most contemptible form on TV, but this is long-established fact. What really offended was not the CBBC level of performance from the jobbing actors who got to play caveman dress-up, or the relentlessly invasive incidental music, or even the fact that Chris Stringer, an expert in his field, was given about a minute’s screen time in the documentary parts of the programme. No, what was really annoying was that it’s very title encoded the disrespect for the subject that the programme-makers clearly felt. Not that to take something seriously means to be humourless, but the interested viewer can tell, without a doubt, that the title preceded the idea, and the form preceded that.
As one of the archaeologists said, if these alternate versions of humanity had survived into the present day, if we still shared the planet with neanderthals and some variant of homo erectus, we would still think of ourselves as special, but certainly not unique. That, possibly, would teach us some humility. The concept has enthralled writers for years, but apart from William Golding’s haunting early novel ‘The Inheritors’, their approach tends to be firmly within the traditions of historical romance. I don’t have any particular problem with historical romance, but the historical setting tends to be no more than a backdrop to a story that could fit into any era with minimal tweaking, whereas it’s the idea itself that should be significant.
It’s an idea that has obsessed me for years, particularly with regards to neanderthal man. Since their first discovery in the 1850s, the reputation of the neanderthals has steadily climbed. Initially seen as savage, barely human animals, archaeologists are now in broad agreement that their social organisation was relatively sophisticated, that they must have had a rudimentary language, that they cared for the sick and buried their dead and had some form of spiritual or religious life. In Golding’s novel, based on intuition rather than research, these earlier humans were placid and peaceful, communicating through shared dreams and telepathy. It’s a commonplace critical insight that cultures define themselves by what they are not, hence why in the 19th century the neanderthal was represented as savage and brutal, in comparison to the fundamentally teleological high Victorian era, with its obsession with science, taxonomy, progress and reason. In which case, it’s significant that neanderthal man is now experiencing something of a cultural rehabilitation programme – perhaps we are mapping on to our vanished cousins some of what we instinctively feel we have lost in a secular, materialistic age.
There must be a way to write about this joint existence, this moment when there were multiple forms of human consciousness on the planet, interacting, fighting, interbreeding, without (I mean no disrespect) going down the Jean Auel route, or even by aping (no pun intended) William Golding’s sensitive reimagining of our extinguished past. If there is, I’m going to try to find it, one day.
Anyway, to acquaint yourself with the horrors done in your name, here is the link to the first episode of Planet of the Apemen. The neanderthal episode is on Thursday. I look forward to kicking my TV to pieces.